Throughout an offensive slump that dulled the early glow of the Washington Nationals’ season of lofty expectations, players pleaded for patience. Sleepy bats betrayed solid pitching and magnified mistakes. Manager Davey Johnson, though frustrated by the meager production, made only minor changes to the lineup. One or two sparks from any player, he reasoned, could light a fire under the entire team.
Against the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday at Nationals Park, Washington received quite a few offensive outbursts in an 8-1 win. Bryce Harper, the consistent shining star of the offense, smashed his Nationals-record eighth home run in April. On his 26th birthday, Danny Espinosa, the struggling second baseman, delivered a three-RBI game that included a two-run home run and an RBI double. On the mound, Gio Gonzalez fired his most dominant performance of the season, reminiscent of his stellar 2012 campaign, allowing only one hit and one run over eight innings.
The Nationals ended their four-game skid and returned to .500. They could rejoice in their fourth win in 13 games and their largest offensive output since a 10-3 victory over the Miami Marlins on April 15. The offense smacked 12 hits and, in the second inning, staked Gonzalez to the team’s first lead in 38 innings. Every facet of the team performed. In one game, order seemed restored. Joy returned. Music played in the clubhouse. Players shook hands on the field for the first time since Saturday.
“We needed a game like this, to come out and click on all cylinders,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Everybody was having fun, laughing in the dugout again. It was like back to normal.”
“This is how this club should play,” Espinosa said. “This is definitely what I expected.”
Through his first four starts of the season, Gonzalez struggled with command, a wavering arm slot and rushed delivery. On Thursday, he pounded the strike zone. He worked quickly and efficiently, tossing 112 pitches, 78 for strikes. He walked only two batters and allowed only one hit, a solo home run to Joey Votto in the fourth inning. It was only the second time in Nationals history that an opponent was held to one hit, the last time on April 2, 2008.
Gonzalez overpowered hitters primarily with 92-to-94 mph fastballs, mixing in his wicked curveball on occasion. When he struggled in previous performances, he nibbled on the corners of the strike zone and threw too many pitches. Against the Reds, he attacked, his stuff good enough to survive on its own. The Gonzalez of last season, a 21-game winner and National League Cy Young Award finalist, had returned. “I didn’t want to let the team down again,” he said.
“Today he was just get the ball and go,” Suzuki said. “He was rock-and-fire.”
In recent days, Johnson preoccupied himself with the state of the Nationals’ bats. After the second shutout in three days earlier this week, Johnson vowed to make lineup changes. He sat slumping slugger Adam LaRoche on Tuesday. After more struggles on Wednesday, he played Steve Lombardozzi on Thursday and moved two-hole hitter Jayson Werth to the cleanup spot. While Werth and Lombardozzi finished a combined 1 for 9, it almost didn’t matter. The at-bats and results were better.
“I was pleased with just about everybody’s at-bats during the game, so that was great,” Johnson said.
Johnson had worried that his players were pressing and worried about performing under sky-high expectations. “We made some pitchers look better than they are, not to take anything away from them,” Denard Span said. But when Johnson walked out of the dugout in the afternoon to watch LaRoche taking early batting practice, he found eight other players working on their hitting. “I was really kind of amazed,” he said.
In the third inning, Harper crushed a solo home run off Reds starter Bronson Arroyo to the center field grass. Span drove in three runs, two on an eighth-inning triple. Espinosa, who entered Thursday hitting .155, had drilled a double to the right field wall in his first at-bat to score Ian Desmond. An inning later, with LaRoche on base thanks to an error, he smoked a ball into the right field bullpen for a two-run shot, his second of the season.
“I guess he has to have his birthday every day or something,” Johnson said, jokingly following the game.
During the skid in which the Nationals scored only four runs over 37 innings and couldn’t maintain consistency, they also felt unlucky. Hard-hit balls didn’t leave the stadium. Solid line drives landed in the gloves of infielders. On Thursday, it seemed as if the baseball gods had finally taken notice of their plight.
The Reds committed two errors, one of which led to a run. In the third inning, Votto fielded a groundball hit to him by LaRoche and threw to second base to turn a double play. The ball plunked Werth square in the back and rolled into center field. Werth raced to third base and LaRoche, who hadn’t reached base in his previous 11 plate appearances, wound up on second. In the previous inning, Span beat out a groundball by mere inches, a chopper hit too deep in the hole for shortstop Zack Cozart to field cleanly. In both situations, runs would eventually score.
“We’ve been swinging the bats pretty well, I thought, as a team,” Espinosa said. “Just wasn’t going in for us. I thought we hit some balls hard. They were making diving plays on broken bats, good plays, but I thought as a team we were doing all right. But it was so nice to see the balls fall in, to score runs. It was fun.”