The Washington Nationals hope to set a few more franchise firsts as this season winds down, but Sunday’s 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals was a big one. With 29 games remaining, the 2012 Nats have broken even again, finally.
The 81st win of the season matches the high water mark for this franchise since the relocation in that first year of 2005, when a bunch of misfits, free agents and the decaying remains of the Montreal Expos won improbable one-run games all summer for manager Frank Robinson before stumbling to the finish line to finish at an even .500.
This year’s version hopes to be playing even more memorable games down the stretch and has visions of post-season play, but the first hurdle remains for them to earn one more win, which will ensure a winning record for the first time as Washington Nationals. For fans of the franchise since the move, that win has been a long time in the making.
The sheer number of consecutive losing seasons, six, isn’t as devastating as the path they took there. Five out of six years in last place in the division. Consecutive 100-plus loss seasons. The “Smiley Gonzalez” scandal. The “Natinals”. Now, just memories.
The script for win No. 81 was much the same as the rest. The Nats got a strong starting pitching performance from a rising superstar and managed to score enough runs to hang on. Sunday, Stephen Strasburg made his 27th start of the season and it was as good as any. He allowed just two hits and one walk, striking out nine, in six shutout innings. Only a faltering bullpen kept him from winning his 16th game of the season.
Nats fans appreciated every inning, every pitch, as Strasburg’s season winds down even faster than that of his teammates. Manager Davey Johnson said in the post-game that Strasburg would make just two more starts this season, with his final appearance scheduled for Sept. 12 in New York against the Mets. But Sunday, he didn’t look like a pitcher that needed to be shut down.
Strasburg left the game with a 2-0 lead, courtesy of a Kurt Suzuki home run in the fourth inning and RBI single in the sixth. But Sean Burnett allowed a two-run homer to .220-hitting Daniel Descalso in the seventh inning to erase Strasburg’s excellent performance.
But as they’ve done all year, the Nats came right back. Four consecutive two-out singles in the bottom of the seventh pushed two runs across to retake the lead. Despite Ryan Mattheus giving one back in the eighth, the Nats held on to secure the victory and take the series win over the Cardinals.
There’s still a lot of baseball to be played this season. The Nats watched their closest competition in the division, the Atlanta Braves, score five runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Phillies late Sunday to avoid a sweep and keep the division lead at 6 1/2 games. But it looks more and more likely with each day that passes that the Nats are positioning themselves for post-season play.
But win No. 82 comes first, and all of NatsTown should celebrate that occasion when it happens.