Nationals grind out another victory

Nationals grind out another victory
August 29, 2013, 1:15 am
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Nats overcome weather, top Marlins

Perhaps during his dark days of 2011, or perhaps even earlier this season when he was still rediscovering his swing, Jayson Werth would have been pitched to in the seventh inning of a tie game and the go-ahead run in scoring position.

Not these days, though, not with Werth as productive and as feared as any hitter in the National League.

"He's playing unbelievable," Ian Desmond said. "This is the Jayson I remember playing against in Philadelphia: The grinding-type at-bats, a lot of balls hit on the barrel, working the count."

So Marlins manager Mike Redmond instructed reliever Mike Dunn to throw four intentional balls to Werth in that key spot in the bottom of the seventh, bringing Desmond to the plate with a chance to give the Nationals the lead. Which Desmond did, roping the two-out, RBI single that spurred the Nationals to a 4-3 victory and continued their slow climb back into contention.

"I don't even know if I hit a strike, to be honest," said Desmond, who somehow managed to turn on Dunn's well-inside slider. "But fortunately it got the job done."

The Nationals collectively have been getting the job done for nearly three weeks now. A team that spent four months finding every possible way to lose close ballgames is now finding every possible way to win them.

This was their seventh victory in eight games, their 13th in 18 games, leaving them 2 games over .500 for the first time since July 11.

"It's starting to snowball a little bit. You can feel it," Werth said. "It's too bad that we waited this long to put it together. We may be down, but we're not out. We're giving ourselves a chance here."

Though they were victorious, the Nationals (67-65) didn't gain any ground in the standings. The Reds demolished the Cardinals in St. Louis, avoiding a sweep and maintaining a 7-game lead in the race for the NL's final Wild Card berth.

But the Nationals have maintained all along they can only control their own outcomes, and so they were perfectly content with their latest win, one that came in a grind-it-out manner.

A 1-hour, 12-minute rain delay in the bottom of the second inning threw a wrench into their plans, forcing Stephen Strasburg from the game after only 22 pitches and leaving it all up to an already-overtaxed bullpen to take over the remainder of the game.

Strasburg, who retired six of the seven batters he faced, tried to stay loose during the delay, stretching and playing catch. But his back began to stiffen up, and manager Davey Johnson didn't want to take any chances, especially once the delay approached the 60-minute mark.

"It was a no-brainer at that point," Johnson said. "Generally speaking, maximum for me is about an hour. But the fact that he got a little bit stiff in the back, he's not even going to hit in that situation."

Strasburg, who had been at the plate with an 0-1 count when crew chief Ted Barrett called for the grounds crew, knew his odds of returning were slim.

"I think once you get past 45 minutes to an hour, your body really starts to get a little tight and everything," he said. "It's just unfortunate. I thought I was going to be able to get back out there, especially when it stopped raining, but we just weren't able to get everything ready to go."

Needing seven innings out of his bullpen, Johnson turned first to Craig Stammen, who made it through the fifth. Ryan Mattheus, in his first appearance since returning from Class AAA Syracuse, struggled again, allowing two runs in the sixth including a monster home run by Giancarlo Stanton.

But Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano took over after that and kept the Marlins to three runs, giving their lineup a chance to rally and re-take the lead.

"It takes a little bit of a toll," Storen said of all the innings the Nationals bullpen has been asked to pitch in recent weeks. "But I think we've had our fair share of work the last couple years. We take a lot of pride in that. It's kind of fun. It's a challenge for us."

It helps when their teammates reward them for the effort by producing clutch hits late. They did that on Wednesday thanks to Werth's 20th home run, a towering shot which nearly landed in the exact same spot as Stanton's beyond the center field fence.

"I think his went a little farther," Werth said. "But mine was higher."

Werth nearly was in position to drive in the go-ahead run one inning later, but the Marlins weren't going to let that happen. So it was that the veteran slugger took his foul balls and trotted down to first base, leaving the game in Desmond's hands and ultimately leaving the Nationals in position to continue their late-summer surge.

"We've got to continue to play like this the rest of the way, and that's fine," Werth said. "It is what it is. We've kind of made the bed, so we're going to have to sleep in it. But we've got a chance. We've got a heartbeat."