Despite depleted lineup, Nats prevail
Davey Johnson took his customary seat in the interview room at Nationals Park Tuesday night and let out a sigh.
"It's never easy," the 70-year-old manager said, "is it?"
Well, no. The Nationals' 7-5 victory over the Diamondbacks should never have been that close, with the tying run standing on first base in the ninth inning and the home club coming this close to blowing an early 6-run lead.
But ignore, for a moment, the near-collapse late and focus instead of the events of the game's first five innings, in particular the bottom of the third, when a typically moribund Nationals lineup exploded for five runs to match its most-productive offensive frame of the season. Denard Span singled to drive in a run. Jayson Werth singled to drive in a run. And Adam LaRoche produced the biggest blast: a three-run homer to complete the huge inning.
That sudden burst of lumber allowed the Nationals to open up a big lead and allowed this admittedly tight ballclub to play loose for a change, knowing the game wasn't going to completely turn around on one swing.
"To get up early like that, that's really how our offense should operate," said Werth, who reached base four times despite a sore groin that clearly hampered him in the field and on the bases. "We haven't been doing it, but we have a potent offense. We need to rally and score runs like that more often. ... If we're going to be a championship club, that's something that's going to have to be night-in and night-out."
That it happened on this night despite a lineup missing Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos and with a banged-up Werth making do, was fairly remarkable.
That it happened on the same night Gio Gonzalez pitched was downright stunning.
The Nationals haven't consistently scored runs for any of their starters this season, but they really haven't scored them for Gonzalez, who despite a 2.18 ERA over his previous eight outings had precisely zero wins to show for it. On this night, he finally was rewarded for his efforts thanks to the early offensive outburst.
"You don't want to be the guy left out in trying to do something right," Gonzalez said. "It's nice to see these guys swinging the bat and having some fun."
The left-hander has pitched better games during this recent stretch, but he pitched well enough to earn the win this time, carrying a shutout into the sixth before beginning to wilt on an oppressive, 90-degree night in the District.
Johnson thought about removing his starter at that point, even though he'd only thrown 91 pitches. But the manager decided to let Gonzalez re-take the mound for the seventh, only to make the stroll to the mound after only two batters and signal for his bullpen.
"After the rough inning before, I didn't want to go too far with him," Johnson said. "The bullpen's usually been pretty good, but here they're not used to having a big lead."
The lead was still 6-1 when Drew Storen entered to replace Gonzalez in the seventh, and that's when things started to get interesting. Storen let his inherited runner score on a two-out RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt. Moments later, another run scored when rookie second baseman Anthony Rendon booted a hard groundball hit right at him.
The Diamondbacks kept chipping away the rest of the night. Martin Prado homered off Tyler Clippard in the eighth to make it 6-4. The Nationals answered with an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, but closer Rafael Soriano followed by letting Arizona get the run right back in the ninth.
Soriano wound up surrendering three straight two-out hits, putting the tying man on base and bringing the potential go-ahead run to the plate. Somehow, he got Prado to rap a grounder to short, ending the game and allowing everyone among the crowd of 30,287 breathe a sigh of relief.
That ninth inning might not have been quite as harrowing had Werth been 100 percent healthy in right field. But still hampered by the groin injury that forced him out of Sunday's game early, Werth couldn't get to Miguel Montero's soft liner in front of him. If he makes the play, the game ends right there. Instead, the Diamondbacks scored a run and maintained life for at least a few more minutes.
"I was kind of in between steps, and it was a ball I was going to have to dive for," Werth said. "A play I'd like to make, for sure."
Werth would like to make that play, but his body doesn't appear to be allowing him to even attempt to pull it off right now. Though he reached base in all four of his plate appearances Tuesday night — he singled, doubled and drew two walks — the veteran clearly was laboring in the field and on the bases.
"I feel OK," Werth said. "Obviously I'm probably going to be dealing with this groin for a while. But it's definitely playable and something I can manage. No problem."
Johnson will probably let Werth keep playing through this as long as the outfielder insists he can do it.
"I just go by what he tells me," the manager said. "He says he's had it before, when it was worse, and he could play through it. So that's good enough for me."
Johnson also will have Zimmerman back in the lineup Wednesday after giving the third baseman a rare night off to rest his surgically repaired right shoulder.
And with Harper nearing his return from the DL — the 20-year-old looked sharp in his first rehab game Tuesday at Class A Potomac — the Nationals might just finally have some semblance of their projected Opening Day lineup back together in the near future.
That will be a welcome relief, even though Tuesday night's depleted group still managed to produce enough to win a game.
"We're slowly getting closer to what this offense can do," LaRoche said.