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82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

When victory No. 82 in the most successful baseball season in the District of Columbia in 43 years was official, the reaction on the field and in the clubhouse at Nationals Park was no different than after any of the previous 81 wins.

Tyler Clippard and Kurt Suzuki met at the pitchers' mound to shake hands. Players lined up for their customary high-fives. The same mix tape of songs heard after every win was pumped through the clubhouse stereo system.

Most Nationals didn't even realize their 2-1 Labor Day triumph over the Cubs had secured the first winning season by a D.C. ballclub since Ted Williams' 1969 Senators did it at the recently renamed RFK Stadium.

"I wasn't really concerned about that," manager Davey Johnson insisted.

"That's been the farthest thing from our goal," first baseman Adam LaRoche added.

"We want to take it to the next level," Tyler Clippard chimed in. "We don't want to stop there. That's what's exciting about the season."

All fair points, and all evidence of just how far the Nationals have come in such a short amount of time. When this team opened its season five months ago against these same Cubs, a winning record would have constituted a significant accomplishment.

But as the wins began piling up and the magic number suddenly became part of the local lexicon, the bar for success kept getting raised. Now, anything short of the first postseason berth by a D.C. ballclub since 1933 would be a huge disappointment.

So the most important development out of Monday's game from the Nationals' perspective wasn't how many wins they had at the end of the day but who earned that win with another impressive pitching performance: Ross Detwiler.

In churning out seven scoreless innings, Detwiler improved to 9-6 on the season, lowered his ERA to 3.15 and left his teammates feeling as confident as ever about his ability to keep winning games down the stretch and perhaps into October.

"He's been great for us this year, and it's really only the tip of the iceberg for him," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 26-year-old left-hander. "He's still learning how to pitch, so he's come a long way. I think we're all proud of how he's learned from his mistakes and grown and become the pitcher he is."

Where Detwiler used to be good for four or five innings before fading, he now appears to get stronger as the game progresses. It's no longer a big deal for him to complete seven innings, nor to pitch his way out of jams as he did a couple of times on Monday.

He's learned both to be aggressive with his fastball early in the count but also to know when to turn to his offspeed stuff in a pinch. Put it all together, and the Nationals' current No. 5 starter (and soon-to-be No. 4 starter once Stephen Strasburg is shut down) is at last living up to the promise the club saw when it drafted him sixth overall in the country in 2007.

"I'm learning myself and what I need to do in different situations," he said. "Say I'm behind in the count. I'm learning how to throw a changeup, or how to throw a sinker down in the zone, instead of just sinking in there and letting it get hit. I think that's the biggest thing."

Detwiler was aided on Monday by a couple of timely hits from some of the big bats in the Nationals' lineup. LaRoche got things started with a solo homer in the second, his team-leading 25th of the year. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to produce what proved to be a key insurance run in the eighth, with Harper singling to right and then coming all the way around to score on Zimmerman's double into the left-field corner.

That run turned out to be the difference after Clippard suffered a hiccup in the ninth, surrendering a couple of singles that allowed Chicago to plate its only run and threaten to plate the tying tally.

Clippard, though, calmly struck out Josh Vitters to end the game, secure his 30th save and secure a winning season for a once-downtrodden franchise that is at long last getting to enjoy the fruits of success.

There aren't many remaining in the organization from those early days in 2005 and 2006, when nobody quite knew what the future held for the Nationals.

As it turned out, there were plenty of dark days ahead: 100-loss seasons, front office and coaching staff overhauls, small crowds, poor TV ratings and only a glimmer of hope.

Which only makes this season sweeter for the few who have seen this thing all the way through and who understand 82 wins is only the next step toward a much loftier accomplishment.

"We've come a long way," said Zimmerman, the club's first-ever draft pick. "I guess you can't try to start an organization like we did here from the ground up and expect that to happen really quickly. We've gone through the process, and they've done things the right way. It's been a struggle sometimes and it's been frustrating, but I think now we're going to be set for not just this year, but a lot of years to come."

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”