BOSTON -- As well as they seemed to be playing all afternoon -- with Gio Gonzalez dealing and the heart of their lineup scoring four early runs off Daisuke Matsuzaka -- there was a point late in Saturday's game at Fenway Park when it looked like the wheels might fall off for the Nationals.
Over a four-batter stretch in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals saw a four-run lead turn into a two-run lead, with the go-ahead run suddenly stepping to the plate.
And then? Well, a bullpen that has been reconfigured more times in 10 weeks than Davey Johnson would like to remember bore down and finished off a 4-2 win over the Red Sox that ensured yet another series victory for the team with baseball's second-best record.
"Any time you get a performance like that out of your starter, you come in and go into the seventh inning with a four-run lead, you gotta finish games like that out," closer Tyler Clippard said. "You lose games like that throughout the course of the year, they can be big games. So it was huge."
Clippard was the last of four relievers Johnson used to get through the game's final three innings. It wasn't always pretty; Craig Stammen walked the only batter he faced and Michael Gonzalez served up a two-run single to Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the very first pitch he threw.
As Daniel Nava stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game or put Boston ahead, the armchair managers were already questioning the situation. Should Johnson have just stuck with Gio Gonzalez, who was dominant for six innings but then was yanked three batters into the seventh with his pitch count at a still-manageable 98?
"I knew I left myself wide open to be second-guessed," Johnson said. "I just don't like it when Gonzalez starts rushing and starts getting a little wild. ... I've seen him get in those situations where it's like he's trying to get to the finish line. I've stayed with him numerous times, but I didn't have that good feeling in this ballpark."
Gonzalez had pitched brilliantly most of the day, scattering two hits and a walk over six innings and putting himself in position to reach the eighth inning for the first time this season. But as has been the case for the entire Nationals rotation this year, the finish line wasn't within reach. (The staff is averaging a modest 6.04 innings per start.)
"My job was to try to maintain as much as possible," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to go the distance, but that's a situation where I trust my bullpen 100 percent."
Though Stammen and Michael Gonzalez initially poured more fuel on the fire, the latter managed to wriggle his way out of the jam -- striking out Nava looking at an inside fastball and getting Dustin Pedroia to pop out -- and preserve the two-run lead.
"That was kind of a turning point," Clippard said.
Indeed, the Nationals seized back control of the situation after that. Sean Burnett pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, the latest dominant inning from the left-hander who rarely gets mentioned among the game's best relievers but certainly deserves the recognition.
Burnett has now surrendered only two earned runs in 24 appearances this season, and one of those runs was a direct result of Bryce Harper losing a routine flyball in the sky in Cincinnati. Go all the way back to July 19, 2011, and Burnett's composite numbers are staggeringly good: a 1.09 ERA, 1.113 WHIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
"He doesn't flash up the gaudy miles per hour on the gun, and I think that's probably a lot of the reason he gets overlooked," Clippard said. "But at the end of the day, you talk to these hitters, there's no way they're comfortable in the box facing a guy like that."
Nor are many hitters comfortable facing Clippard, who has managed to translate his devastating fastball-changeup repertoire into the kind of stuff that shuts down the opposition in the ninth inning. Though he surrendered a two-out double to Ryan Sweeney, Clippard otherwise finished this game off without incident, earning his seventh save in as many tries since taking over closer duties three weeks ago.
As a result, Gio Gonzalez improved to 8-2 with a 2.35 ERA. And with five more strikeouts on the afternoon, his season total of 89 now ranks behind only one other pitcher in the majors: Stephen Strasburg, who racked up 13 K's Friday night to bring his season total to 92.
Not a bad 1-2 punch for the Nationals to throw at opposing teams.
"And it's no picnic tomorrow with Jordan Zimmermann," Johnson said.
No, it's not. Though the Nationals have been in this position plenty of times before; they've had 11 previous opportunities to sweep a series and have pulled it off just once.
"We've been really good at winning series, and we haven't really swept a lot of teams," Clippard said. "It would be really nice to do that tomorrow."