By the fourth inning, the Nationals led by 11 runs, turning the Phillies pitching staff into mincemeat and allowing everyone to breathe a sigh of relief and just play out the string under no pressure.
But when Saturday night’s game was only two batters into the bottom of the first, when the outcome was still very much undecided, the manner in which the Nationals plated their first run of the evening seemed particularly significant.
Denard Span and Anthony Rendon combined to produce that run, with a little help from A.J. Burnett, setting the tone with a perfectly executed performance.
Span led things off with a single to right, extending his streak of consecutive games reaching base to 28, the longest current streak in the majors. Then he stole second off the slow-to-the-plate Burnett, putting himself in scoring position for Rendon. Who promptly drove a base hit through the right side of the infield, bringing Span home and giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
“I had a coach in the minor leagues who would always say: ‘Score first, and the percentages go up of you winning,'” Span said. “That’s definitely our job as the No. 1 and 2 hitters of the team.”
“It sets the table for the guys in the middle,” manager Matt Williams said. “Certainly it helps if [Span] has the ability to steal second base and get into scoring position with nobody out in the top of the first. It just puts pressure on the other club. Anthony stole a base, as well (later that inning). It set our offense in motion a little bit. To score one in the bottom of the first is good for us to get off the schneid, if you will, from last night.”
The Nationals’ top two hitters are doing more than their share right now to pace the Nationals lineup. Thanks to his month-long surge, Span is now hitting .291 with a .349 on-base percentage. With the season two-thirds of the way complete, he’s on pace to score 102 runs. Impressive as that sounds, it actually lags behind Rendon, who is now on pace to cross the plate a league-leading 116 times, while hitting .281 with an .807 OPS.
Of course, a few more overall showing like this, and others in the Nationals lineup will put themselves on pace for some monster numbers by season’s end as well.
All eight position players drove in at least one run by the fourth inning, and Jordan Zimmermann nearly joined them when he drilled a ball to the wall in right-center with two men on in the bottom of the third, only to be robbed by the Phillies’ Marlon Byrd.
The biggest blow came from Rendon, one inning after his well-placed RBI single to right. With two men on in the bottom of the second, he launched Burnett’s pitch into the Red Porch seats in left-center, snapping the Nationals’ streak of innings without a home run at 84 (longest in club history).
That made it 5-0, and that apparently infuriated Burnett to the point of no return. Having already gotten upset at plate umpire Chris Guccione for calling a borderline pitch outside earlier in the Rendon at-bat, the veteran right-hander admitted he purposely threw his next pitch to Jayson Werth for a ball so he could then yell at Guccione: “That was outside!” Guccione immediately ejected Burnett and later gave Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg the heave-ho as well.
The Nationals watched it all silently, simply waiting to continue their barrage at the plate, which they continued against the Phillies bullpen. They added another run in the third, then five more in the fourth off beleaguered right-hander Phillipe Aumont to open up a commanding lead.
Rendon doubled during that rally, leaving him 3-for-3 with a single, a double and a homer, one three-bagger away from the first cycle of his career.
“I heard a few people in the stands going: ‘Get the triple! Get the triple!'” he said. “I didn’t want to. That meant I’d have to run more. I’d stop at second base.”
Rendon never had the chance to make that decision. He grounded out in the fifth and flied out in the seventh, ending the night 3-for-5. Not that the Nationals needed any more offense up 11-0 on one of the more enjoyable nights of the season.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Span said. “We lost two tough ones the first two games of this series. It’s a lot of fun just scoring runs, because we hadn’t scored too many runs the previous two games. Just keep the line moving.”