The Cubs came to town already out of contention and armed with plenty of young players and rookies. Few fans filled the stands at Nationals Park on Tuesday to watch this stark contrast in fates.
The Nationals, meanwhile, are the owners of the best record in baseball. They have moved past six straight seasons of losing records and testing minor league call-ups in September for the future, and pushed further into uncharted territory, their sights set far beyond just piecing together a winning record.
They had claimed their first winning season since 1969 a day earlier. And on Tuesday, they pushed their lead in the National League East to a season-high 7½ games over the Atlanta Braves. They reduced their magic number to clinch the division to 20. They continue on a torrid pace, perhaps en route to 100 wins.
Tuesday’s game was the Nationals’ latest opportunity to take advantage of a struggling team. They tied a team record by launching six home runs, two of them by Adam LaRoche. Ian Desmond added four RBI and every starter, even starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, notched a hit. They shredded Cubs pitching for 19 hits, 11 of them for extra bases. It was more than enough to improve their record to 54-29 against teams below .500, the second-most such wins in the majors.
“This is something we were thinking about in spring training, we knew we were capable of doing it,” LaRoche said. “Unfortunately we had some injuries and some streakiness this year. But we haven’t had a six, seven-game outburst like this where we go out and score 18 runs. It’s nice. We owe the starting pitchers for what they did the first couple months.”
Since the offense bogged down during a recent five-game losing streak that struck fear into some fans, the Nationals are 6-1. They have outscored their opponents 52-24 in that span. Tuesday, they scored 10 or more runs for the ninth time this season and the seocnd time in the past five games.
“Made you guys forget about last week,” said Desmond with a smirk.
From the start, in front of a meager crowd of 17,648, the Cubs were completely overmatched. The Nationals tormented rookie starter Chris Rusin, chasing him in the second inning with no outs and five runs allowed. The Nationals then faced six pitchers over the final seven innings.
“It was definitely different,” rookie left fielder Tyler Moore said of facing so many pitchers in a game. “We got on their starter early and were able to get in their bullpen, so now that sets us up for the next two games.”
Jayson Werth led off the game with a single and Desmond launched a towering home run to right-center field, one of his longest opposite-field blasts. The Nationals didn’t score again that inning, despite loading the bases, but they had figured Rusin out.
Jesus Flores opened the second inning with a solo home run to left field. Jackson followed with a single and Werth moved him to third with a double. Up came Desmond, who feasts on opponents’ first pitches, ready to pounce. He hammered a slider to center field, plating two runs. In three swings, Desmond had produced four RBI, matching a career-high in a game.
The torment continued in the fourth. LaRoche sent an outside fastball from rookie Rafael Dolis into the visitor’s bullpen in left field. After he rounded the bases and high-fived his teammates in the dugout, the Nationals’ leading power hitter hugged his 10-year old son Drake, who was standing in the stairwell of the tunnel that led to the clubhouse.
Espinosa followed with a double and Moore, who started Tuesday over Bryce Harper, continued to show his impressive talent in limited playing time. He mashed a ball high and deep into the left field seats to make the score 8-1. He dropped his bat and slowly marched off towards first base, watching a home run that Nationals Manager Davey Johnson predicted would come.
“I kind of told [bench coach] Randy [Knorr], if he throws that 96 mile an hour fastball a little bit more he’s going to kill it and, boom, he did,” Johnson said.
Ryan Zimmerman added a home run to center field in the sixth. In the bottom of the eighth inning, LaRoche continued on his scorching hitting pace, launching a ball far into the right field seats. He has homered in four times in his past four games.
“Everybody in our lineup’s capable of going out of the ballpark,” Johnson said. “We’re in a pretty good place right now offensively.”
Staked to the big lead, Jackson cruised through the five innings. He struck out five straight batters immediately before stumbling with two outs in the sixth.
Jackson allowed a single and walk, then former National Alfonso Soriano drilled a pitch to deep left-center. Werth ranged back to the wall in front of the Red Porch seats, but ball hit just below the top of the wall and bounced into the field of play for a two-run triple. An RBI single by Starlin Castro made it 8-4.
Johnson called on fire-balling reliever Christian Garcia, a recent call-up after twice undergoing Tommy John surgery, to make his major league debut. He induced an inning-ending popout with three pitches. Tom Gorzelanny battled some control issues in the seventh inning with magic, loading the bases on three walks, but wiggled out unscathed.
Ryan Mattheus and Michael Gonzalez completed the final two innings. The Nationals secured another win, moving one step further away from their past and keeping an eye on what separates them from a future in the postseason. Late in games, they check the scoreboard to see how the Braves are faring.
“When you start seeing the number of games you need to win and they need to lose, you start peeking up there,” LaRoche said. “Again, it’s not going to change what we do. But we’ve got a chance to do something, so of course you do.”