The Washington Nationals are all but written out of NL Wild Card contention, but if the stars over Cincinnati should align themselves just right over the next week, this team may very well finish out the season doing everything it can to make its way back into the hunt.
With the Reds holding onto a 4 ½ game lead for the second spot in the NL Wild Card, the Nats face a daunting elimination number of just seven – meaning that any combination of Reds’ wins and Nats’ losses amounting to seven in the next 11 games would cost D.C. a playoff spot.
Nevertheless, the latest victory penned by the Nats came Tuesday night, in Game 2 of a day-night doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves. The leader of the charge was none other than starter Tanner Roark, who, with his seventh win, brought his ERA to an astounding 1.08 after tossing seven shutout innings of two-hit ball.
Unlike the case of their blown lead – and subsequent rally – in Game 1 of the doubleheader, in Game 2, the Nats eased in front of Atlanta starter Freddy Garcia and never looked back.
In fact, the Braves’ only hits through Roark’s seven innings pitched came in the second inning in the form of back-to-back singles by Gerald Laird and Dan Uggla.
In the bottom of the second, Bryce Harper led off with a single before Ian Desmond lined out to left. With Adam LaRoche batting, Harper stole second. LaRoche drew a walk and Harper came home on a single by Steve Lombardozzi to make it 1-0 Washington.
Roark went on to strike out a total of six batters and walk just one through 67 of 101 pitches thrown for strikes.
But his luck on the mound remained in place when Craig Stammen relieved him to start the eighth.
Stammen allowed just one hit in his inning pitched – a single to Elliot Johnson – and he struck out the other three batters he faced, Uggla, Andrelton Simmons and Jordan Schafer.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Nats finally earned their insurance runs once Jordan Walden replaced Garcia. With one out, Ryan Zimmerman smacked his 25th homer of the season to make it 2-0 Nationals. Then, with two outs, Harper singled, Desmond doubled and LaRoche singled to bring Washington a 4-0 lead and win.
In the ninth, closer Rafael Soriano appeared on-track with his inexplicable tradition of struggling in non-save situations. Fortunately for the Nats, after Soriano gave up back-to-back singles to Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis lined into a 5-3 double play. Chris Johnson reached first on a throwing error by Ian Desmond on a play that should have ended the ball game, but Laird grounded softly back to Soriano to finish off the nightcap once and for all.
What did the win mean for a team that has such immeasurable odds to make the playoffs?
“I think it sends a good message over to Atlanta that we’re not going anywhere,” Davey Johnson said after the game. “We struggled a little bit early but we’re certainly a capable ball club. We’ve got the talent to compete with anybody.”
THE GOOD: No one can quite explain the Nats’ sudden stroke of good luck. Tanner Roark pitched an absolute gem, improving his already astounding record to 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA. Denard Span also extended his hitting streak to a League-best 28 games on the season. In fact, the last Major League ballplayer to top that streak was Dan Uggla with 33 straight in 2011. Instead of evaluating the Nats’ recent stretch with a glass-half-empty approach, Nats fans should hold off on sulking about the all-but-certain elimination that awaits their team and, instead, should appreciate the fact that we are, at last, seeing a team that resembles more closely what all had envisioned for this season.
As an added bonus, this now makes it impossible for the Atlanta Braves to clinch the NL East at Nationals Park.
THE BAD: Rafael Soriano does not belong on the mound in non-save situations.
THE UGLY: The bottom of the third featured what might very well be some of the worst fielding – and baserunning – in MLB this season. After Tanner Roark himself singled to lead off the inning, Denard Span grounded into a would-be double play, booted by shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ throwing error allowed Span to round first and head for second. As that happened, Dan Uggla followed the ball to throw ahead of Span, who was nearing third. On the attempted throw, Uggla either lost his grip on the ball before he motioned to throw it, or he simply failed to hold onto it through the throw – one way or the other, his arm powered forward, but the ball did not. As such, he had to turn around and scoop up the ball once more and, as he did so, Span decided to try for home – but to no avail. Uggla found the cutoff man, Freddie Freeman and Freeman threw home to catcher Gerald Laird in time to catch Span. The play was officially scored a 3-6, E-6, 4-3-2.
THE STATS: 4 R, 11 H, 1 E, 2 BB, 6 K, 2-for-6 RISP, 6 LOB