For Nats, 8th is enough

For Nats, 8th is enough
April 19, 2012, 4:26 am
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You'd be hard-pressed to find a ballclub willing to admit it tries to do nothing at the plate for seven innings before finally kicking into gear late, and you won't get the Nationals to admit such a ludicrous gameplan.

But don't undersell the idea. And don't for a minute believe the Nationals don't have a specific plan of attack to do some serious damage on opposing bullpens late in ballgames.

As Ryan Zimmerman put it: "Those are the at-bats that win or lose you games."

They proved that yet again tonight in rallying to beat the Astros, 3-2, scoring all three of their runs in the seventh and eighth innings after looking feeble at the plate against Houston starter Lucas Harrell.

In the process, they got Jordan Zimmermann off the hook for what seemed destined to be another hard-luck loss, instead letting their starter take his second no-decision in three tries this season.

Oh yeah, and they won for the eighth time in nine days. And are seven games over .500 for the first time since Aug. 18, 2005. And now lead the NL East by 2 12 games. And now own the best record in the NL at 10-3.

"There's still a lot of battles to go," manager Davey Johnson said. "We haven't won nothing. But we've proven we can play with anybody we go up against, at least so far."

And they've proven they can bide their time for most of the evening before seizing their best opportunities for victory. Tonight, that meant hanging around for six innings, watching as Zimmermann surrendered his lone run without letting the ball leave the infield, and then springing into action in the seventh.

The tying run came via a pair of doubles, one from Rick Ankiel and another from Roger Bernadina. But the Astros immediately got the run back in the top of the eighth when reliever Ryan Mattheus served up a two-out, RBI single to Jordan Schafer.

So the pressure was once again on the Nationals' lineup to come through against an opposing bullpen. Which they did with three walks, an opposite-field single and a sacrifice fly.

Heart-stopping rally? Perhaps not. But there was some purpose behind it. The Nationals, according to Zimmerman, have made a point this season to be more patient against opposing team's late relievers. The concept: Those pitchers usually have power arms, and they tend to try to get you to chase pitches out of the zone.

"Bullpens have swing-and-miss pitchers," Zimmerman said. "As you see them more and as you get more at-bats, you kind of start to lay off those at-bats. Those teams -- the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Cardinals and the teams that go to the playoffs every year -- it's hard to get those last nine outs against them, because they don't swing at balls. And I think we're starting to learn that and making them come to us a little more. So far this year, it's been good."

It's been more than good. The disparity between the Nationals' offensive production early in games vs. late in games is staggering. During innings 1-7, they're hitting a collective .236 with a .310 on-base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage. From the eighth inning on, they're hitting .286 with a .397 on-base percentage and a .402 slugging percentage.

Is it any wonder five of the Nationals' 10 wins to date have seen them take the lead in the eighth inning or beyond?

"I definitely think it builds confidence," said Jayson Werth, whose bases-loaded walk in the eighth brought home the tying run. "It's good for this team to do that, especially early in the season. We'll take the wins as we can get them right now, and hopefully they keep coming."

The at-bat that produced the game-winning run also featured something that hasn't been seen enough through the season's first two weeks: Good situational hitting.

With the bases still loaded and nobody out following Werth's walk, the Nationals were in a golden position to bring home the winning run. Ankiel failed to execute in his at-bat, slapping a groundball right at second baseman Jose Altuve, who threw to the plate for the forceout. But Wilson Ramos did exactly what he needed to do, lofting the first pitch he saw from right-hander Rhiner Cruz to center field, plenty deep to score Adam LaRoche with the go-ahead run.

Ramos was trying to put the ball into the air, though he actually was a little down on himself for not driving that pitch -- a fastball down the middle -- even farther into the night.

"I missed the pitch," he said. "That was a good pitch to hit a homer."

Maybe so, but the sac fly was still good enough to give the Nationals the lead. And that was good enough for Henry Rodriguez to retire the side in the ninth and preserve his team's fifth victory by one run already this season.

Who knew much of this was by design?

"I think we understand we're not going to win every 1-run game," Zimmerman said. "We'd like to have a couple of five or six-run wins every now and again. That would be nice, too. But it's good.

"I think it gives us all those pressure at-bats and how not to get out of the moment. Like the seventh, eighth and ninth innings these last couple games, we've done a great job of making the pitchers come to us and not getting out of our plan. It's definitely a good learning experience for down the road."