Nationals move into 1st place, now try to stay there

Nationals move into 1st place, now try to stay there
June 18, 2014, 12:45 am
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Any fears that the weekend slump that befuddled the Nationals would carry over into arguably their most-important homestand of the season to date were erased five batters into the bottom of the first inning Tuesday night. Three hits off talented Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel, two of them RBI doubles, gave the Nats an early 2-0 lead and left everyone in a better mood.

And even though they had to endure through a torturous top of the eighth that saw Tyler Clippard give four runs back and move the tying runner into scoring position, by night’s end the Nationals could rest easy. They beat Houston, 6-5, opened this homestand on the right foot and even managed to move themselves into first place in the NL East by night’s end.

Not that anyone truly was worried in the wake of that weekend sweep in St. Louis and a 4-game losing streak.

“I mean, it’s baseball,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “You’re going to have a series like that. That’s just why you’re supposed to have a short-term memory and move onto the next game. We’ve got plenty more games to play.”

There are 93 games left on the schedule, an eternity in baseball, but the six games on the Nationals’ docket this week are particularly significant. This two-game series against the up-and-coming Astros leads into a 4-game showdown with the Braves this weekend, with first place in the division up for grabs.

So the fact the Nats took a positive step right from the get-go Tuesday night was encouraging. After being held to four total runs over their previous four games, they enjoyed an offensive explosion of sorts, scoring four runs off Keuchel and then adding two more off reliever Darin Downs to open up what appeared to be a comfortable 6-1 lead.

“I wish we were going to score six runs every game,” said left fielder Ryan Zimmerman, who drove in two of them. “I can tell you right now, we’re going to have three or four more games a couple more times this year where we score one or two runs. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, and trust that it will come around.”

Rendon’s second RBI double of the night, a 2-run rope into the left-field corner, gave the Nationals their biggest lead of the night. Little did they realize at the time they’d need every one of those insurance runs.

After an atypically erratic start from Tanner Roark — one run allowed, but seven hits and two walks surrendered in only five innings — manager Matt Willams was forced to turn to his bullpen for four innings of work to close this one out. The formula has worked remarkably well all season, but this time there was a bump in the road.

Clippard, owner of a 1.23 ERA and zero earned runs allowed since April 11 when he took the mound for the top of the eighth, quickly turned that 5-run lead into a nailbiter. Five hits brought home four runs, Jose Altuve’s double trimming the deficit to 6-5 and giving Williams no choice but to pull his previously dominant setup man with two outs and the tying run on second.

“He had the ability to go get the guys and strike the guys out when he needed to, he just left the fastball up to Altuve,” Williams said of Clippard, who hadn’t pitched in six days. “If he gets that out, then it’s one of those outings where, OK, he gave up a run and wasn’t sharp.”

Aaron Barrett wound up cleaning up the mess, getting George Springer to line out to center, and setting the stage for Rafael Soriano to toss a scoreless ninth, earn his 14th save and secure the Nationals’ victory.

Moments earlier, the Braves lost for the fifth time in seven days, opening the door for the Nats to leapfrog them and take over the top spot in the NL East.

Whether those standings look the same by the end of this critical week remains to be seen. The Nationals know only they must continue to play this kind of baseball every night if they hope to find themselves atop the mountain when it really counts down the road.

“I don’t think you’re ever supposed to think about [the standings],” Rendon said. “At least I don’t. Just take it day-by-day, and one game at a time. And if we come out on top in the end, hooray for us.”