Nationals hope to keep momentum going
The Nationals returned from the All-Star break on July 19 with a winning record, a healthy roster and reason to believe they could take advantage of a long homestand to thrust themselves into the thick of the National League pennant race.
So what transpired over the next 10 days? How much time do you have to run through the laundry list?
The Nationals got swept by the Dodgers. Then they fired their hitting coach, against the manager's wishes. They extended their losing streak to six games before snapping it on Bryce Harper's first career walk-off homer. They got blown out by 11 runs in the first game of a doubleheader, then won the nightcap on Ryan Zimmerman's ninth career walk-off homer. After which they sent their former closer to Class AAA, prompting another reliever to harshly criticize the organization. And then, just as their season appeared on the verge of disaster, they rebounded to win three in a row, capped by Sunday's record-setting, 14-1 throttling of the Mets.
How on earth do the Nationals make sense of all that?
"We can't get too excited," center fielder Denard Span said. "We've been up and down all season. We've just got to stay the course, just try to win series. Definitely this weekend's series was very important for us to win three out of four, especially after losing ... six in a row. Just started off with Zimmerman getting that walk-off home run the other night, and we've just carried that momentum the last two days."
Momentum is a nebulous concept in baseball, and the Nationals have been careful not to believe too much in it. They've already been burned several times this season, thinking they had finally gotten themselves on track only to dig an even deeper hole for themselves.
So take this sudden and surprising hot streak with a grain of salt. Yes, they've won four of five. But they're still two games under .500 with 56 to play. And at best they'll still be 7 1/2 games back in the NL East at night's end, pending the outcome of the Braves' game against the Cardinals.
For now, the Nationals will simply enjoy their all-around domination of New York on Sunday, the most-lopsided victory since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, the most-lopsided victory by any D.C. ballclub since a 13-0 win by the Senators over the Angels on June 2, 1965.
"The talent is there," manager Davey Johnson said. "I've never given up on the talent. It's just we need to start expressing it more often."
They expressed it plenty of times in this game, most notably at the plate. A lineup that has been among the majors' least-productive all year established season-highs in runs (14) and hits (18). Only days after ending a miserable, 7-for-81 streak with runners in scoring position, the Nationals went 9-for-12 in those situations.
"That's the team from the last few years," catcher Wilson Ramos said. "That's the team everybody knows. Today was a great example of what we can do."
Ramos provided the biggest hit of the afternoon: a third-inning grand slam off Mets right-hander Carlos Torres that opened up an 8-0 lead and drew a curtain call from the crowd of 31,467.
That was the biggest hit, but it certainly wasn't the only big hit from the lower half of the Nationals' lineup. Often an wasteland this season that has killed potential rallies, the Nos. 6-8 batters on Sunday went a combined 10-for-12 with a walk, two doubles, two homers, eight runs scored and 10 RBI.
"I think the last few days ... anytime there's a guy in scoring position, we've been getting on base and just making it tough," said Span, who connected for his second homer in 24 hours. "And then Ramos coming in the 8-spot, I mean that's a deep lineup. You think you're coming to the eighth hitter and going to get a break but he, at any moment, could do what he did today."
Nobody was happier about the offensive explosion than Taylor Jordan, who in the sixth start of his career finally pitched well enough and got enough run support to earn his first win.
The rookie right-hander allowed one run over six strong innings, succeeding against a Mets lineup he had already faced last month in his big-league debut.
"For a little bit I was wondering: 'Am I going to go 0-4? 0-5? Am I helping the team?'" Jordan said. "I'm very happy that I got the win, because it means I'm helping the team."
Good pitching. A ton of offense. A three-game winning streak. What's not to like?
Just don't expect the Nationals to get to excited over this, not after all they've been through this season, and especially the last 10 days.
"That's kind of just how baseball works," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Last year was one of those years where we were so consistent and we didn't really have too many bad times. I think a lot of people got spoiled with that and expect it to be that way every year.
"As much as I want it to be that way every year, it's not going to be that way every year. Very rarely, three or four teams a year do that. It's tough to do. The way we started the second half is obviously not the way we wanted to, but we fought back and gotta keep going."