Nationals win 3rd straight, get back over .500

Nationals win 3rd straight, get back over .500
June 22, 2013, 12:00 am
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A dominant performance from the presumptive ace of the staff. Some clutch hits late from a couple of star position players. Big strikeouts in big spots from a key reliever late. And some spectacular defense at critical moments to preserve a 1-run lead and close out an impressive victory.

Not a combination of events seen on a regular basis out of the Nationals over the last three months, but developments that have become more commonplace over the last three nights and were all on display Friday night during a 2-1 win over the Rockies that featured plenty of impressive performances.

There was Stephen Strasburg tossing seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine and showing some emotion on the mound after Ryan Zimmerman's circus catch ended the seventh. There was Zimmerman delivering the game-tying double in the sixth and Ian Desmond delivered yet another go-ahead homer one inning later. There was Drew Storen striking out Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer back-to-back with a man in scoring position in the eighth. And there was Adam LaRoche sprawling to his right to snag a hot shot to end the game and give the crowd of 34,917 one last reason to roar.

Above all else, there was the entire Nationals roster gathering at the center of the diamond, exchanging high-fives for the third straight night, having just secured their longest winning streak in six weeks.

"I think most of all, we've been playing better baseball," Zimmerman said. "That's the most important thing. You get wins and kind of win ugly. They're wins and they're great, but it doesn't really get that momentum going. The past four or five games, we've really started playing like we should have been playing. Hopefully that'll carry over into some more wins."

The Nationals have teased everyone a few times already this season, showing glimpses of snapping out of their funk and going on a legitimate hot streak. And each time they've fallen back into bad habits and left themselves on the wrong side the .500 mark and needing to claw their way back.

So be careful not to get too excited yet about this stretch of improved play. It may not last.

That said, there certainly have been some encouraging developments the last three nights, the kind that could have some staying power.

Begin with Strasburg's performance, a seven-inning gem that included one run, four singles and a double, zero walks, nine strikeouts and only 95 pitches in a rare display of efficiency from the right-hander.

"It means I'm just going right after them," said Strasburg, who went to a 3-ball count to only three of the 27 batters he faced.

There was one moment of potential panic, right at the end of Strasburg's outing, when he bent over for a moment and caused pitching coach Steve McCatty and assistant trainer Steve Gober to come jogging out of the dugout. Turns out there was no need for any concern at all.

Strasburg, who just returned from a 2 1/2-week DL stint with a strained lat muscle, was merely stretching. And he wasn't too pleased with the kid gloves with which his pitching coach seemed to be handling him.

"You know, I'm not a kid anymore," he said. "I should be allowed to stretch a little bit out there."

Strasburg had some sharp words for McCatty in the dugout after the inning, but prior to that he also displayed some real emotion on the mound as Zimmerman went racing back into foul territory and made a no-look, over-the-shoulder catch of Tyler Colvin's pop-foul to end the seventh and strand a runner on second base.

"That was awesome," Strasburg said. "Just watching the ball kind of hang up in the air, and he had to run a long ways and just kind of snared it at the last second. That was huge."

"It's a fun catch to try and make," Zimmerman said. "If you don't make it, it doesn't matter. If you make it, it's great. Not that it doesn't matter; nobody expects you to make it."

At that moment, the game was tied 1-1, and Strasburg was informed his evening was over. It looked like the victim of the majors' worst run support was again going to be denied a chance to earn the win. And then Desmond stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the seventh, took two balls from Manuel Corpas and then blasted the next pitch over the fence in right-center.

It was Desmond's 12th homer of the season (now tied with Bryce Harper for the club lead) and his third in as many nights, all of them having given the Nationals a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

"Still the same white ball coming in," he said. "I'm still whacking away at it, as you could see from my first two at-bats (a groundout and a strikeout). Just blessed, I guess. I don't really know how to say."

Desmond's latest clutch homer gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead, offering no margin for error for their bullpen. Which made Storen's eighth-inning performance all the more impressive. After putting a man on second base with one out following a wild play in which he caught a popped-up bunt but then threw the ball into right field attempting to complete a double play, he now had to face the heart of the Rockies' lineup.

"Just got to get your heart rate down, more than anything," said Storen, who also had to run down the errant ball in shallow right field. "Got after it a little bit there. But you just get your heart rate down and reset and say: 'OK, here's what I need to do.' The play happened pretty quick, but luckily I got a good little breather to reset my sights."

First up: Gonzalez, one of the more-feared left-handed hitters in the league. Storen struck him out on four pitches, the last a 96-mph sinker with serious movement.

Next up: Cuddyer, currently third in the NL with a .335 batting average. Storen struck him out on three pitches, the last an 85-mph slider that had the veteran outfielder completely fooled.

"I like that," Johnson said. "That's the old Drew right there."

The rest was mostly elementary, though the victory wasn't official until LaRoche dove to snag Josh Rutledge's hard smash to first base with two outs in the ninth, securing Rafael Soriano's 19th save and securing the Nationals' third-straight win.

Combined with the Braves' 2-0 loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals not only find themselves back over the .500 mark, they find their deficit in the NL East down to five games.

Legitimate reason to get excited? Maybe, though we've been down this path before and look how it turned out.

For now, just enjoy this nice turnaround for what it is. The Nationals certainly are.

"Yeah, it's a lot of fun," Storen said. "You've got Stephen going out, having an unbelievable outing. And you've got a tight ballgame with a great crowd. It's pretty tough to beat that."