Nationals have to grind out series-sweeping win

Nationals have to grind out series-sweeping win
July 2, 2014, 11:30 pm
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The Nationals rattled off four straight wins mostly by pounding opposing pitchers to a pulp and then watching their own pitching staff mow through lineups. In order to pull off their fifth straight victory, they had to get dirty and grind for a change.

Down three runs early to the Rockies on a sweltering Wednesday night in the District, with starter Doug Fister battling some uncharacteristic command issues, the Nationals turned to some stellar defense and a couple of clutch home runs to eke out a 4-3 win that boosted the spirits of their workmanlike starter.

“It’s a lift that those guys are back there busting their butts and playing the game the way they know how,” Fister said. “The way they’re sacrificing for me is something that I’m truly grateful. Those guys are going out there, day-in and day-out, whether it’s hot, cold, rain or snow, and those guys are playing a game that they love the right way.”

His full roster healthy for the first time since Opening Day, manager Matt Williams has been fielding lineups built with offensive punch in mind more than defensive wizardry. Could’ve fooled the Rockies, who were robbed of base hits perhaps as many as six times during this game.

There was Ian Desmond making an over-the-shoulder catch of a liner to shallow left field. There was Denard Span tracking down drives to the gaps in center field. There was Bryce Harper charging in hard to make a sliding catch in left field. And there was Ryan Zimmerman, looking very much like his old Gold Glove self at third base, with cat-like reflexes to snag a couple of hot shots, then on-target throws as the crowd of 28,943 held its collective breath.

“There were some great plays,” Williams said. “Denard made a couple of plays tonight, one on a ball over his head. Zim made a couple. It’s important for us to play good defense and support our pitcher. Keeps us in games.”

It certainly kept the Nationals in this one in spite of Fister’s off-night. The tall right-hander, usually a master at keeping the ball down in the zone and inducing groundballs, couldn’t command his sinker early on, leading to a bunch of flyball outs, line-drive hits and a towering, 3-run homer by Rockies backup catcher Michael McKenry.

“A constant battle all night,” Fister said. “The biggest thing was just making sure the ball got down in the zone. I left a few balls over the plate and they made me pay for them. I really had to struggle to keep that going after that.”

Laborious outing or not, Fister still departed having allowed only those three early runs over seven innings, striking out five without walking a batter. That he was able to salvage a quality start despite his struggles wasn’t lost on teammates.

“That’s what I think Mike [Rizzo[ brought him here for," Desmond said. "He wasn't sharp early, he identified it, made the adjustment and continued to hold them to that three runs and gave us a chance to win the ballgame. Can't give him enough credit for how fast he works and pitching in the strike zone. That's something that our other starters are feeding off."

Keeping the deficit at three runs, Fister bought time for the Nationals' lineup to figure out Rockies left-hander Tyler Matzek. It happened in the bottom of the fourth, when Jayson Werth blasted a 2-run homer, then when Harper hustled his way to a double, took third on a wild pitch and then scored on Desmond's RBI single.

All that set the stage for Desmond to deliver the biggest blow of the night. Moments after Matzek was pulled with one out in the seventh, he scorched right-hander Matt Belisle's 0-1 pitch to deep right-center. The ball bounced off the top of the wall, then appeared to ricochet off a metal railing beyond the fence before bouncing back to the field. Desmond was pretty sure he had homered, but with no definitive sign from umpire Joe West, he just kept running til he reached third base.

"The way it bounced back hard like that, I kind of assumed that it was over," he said. "And the way that [center fielder Drew] Stubbs kind of just didn’t go after it made it a little bit easier. But at that point I was like: ‘I’m gonna get the triple.’ Yeah, I thought it was gone, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”

It took a delay of 3 minutes, 42 seconds for umpires at MLB headquarters in New York to confirm what most in the ballpark were sure was true: The ball indeed bounced off the metal rail, making it a home run. Desmond trotted the final 90 feet and exchanged high-fives, though not with the amount of enthusiasm that would typically accompany a go-ahead homer in the bottom of the seventh.

“Not nearly as awkward as Mike Morse having to re-run the bases [in Sept. 2012],” Desmond said. “But, yeah, that was a little bit long. But they got it right. Tip your cap for that.”

And tip your cap to the Nationals bullpen, which finished off the 1-run victory. Tyler Clippard struck out Troy Tulowitzki on a nasty split-finger fastball to end the eighth, and Rafael Soriano stranded the tying runner on third in the ninth to secure his team’s fifth straight win.

With nine wins in their last 12 games, the Nationals (46-38) have improved to a season-best eight games over the .500 mark.

“The last two, two-and-a-half weeks, we’ve been playing the baseball we expected to play,” Clippard said. “We’ve been pitching, timely hitting, playing defense. This is who we are. We’re pretty happy with how things are going right now.”