Matt Williams wanted his players to be upset at themselves after Thursday night’s debacle of a loss. But the first-year manager also wanted them to forget all about that game the moment they left Nationals Park and return Friday committed to making things better.
So what transpired over the course of 2 hours and 31 minutes of crisp, clean, well-played baseball was especially pleasing to Williams and the Nationals. That they also happened to win the game, beating the Cardinals 3-1, was merely the cherry on top.
“We needed something like this,” said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, among the more-instrumental participants in this victory.
Some 24 hours after they kicked the ball all around the park, flailed away at pitches at the plate and skulked off the field at the end of an 8-0 loss that left Williams livid, the Nationals put forth one of their best all-around efforts of the young season. They got a big-time start from Gonzalez, who allowed one run over seven sterling innings. They got a couple of key hits at the right moments. They got some bang-up relief work from Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano just when things were starting to look tenuous late.
And, perhaps most importantly, they took advantage of the opposition’s mistakes for a change.
The decisive runs both scored on a series of seventh-inning screw-ups by the usually sure-handed Cardinals, who committed two errors and uncorked a wild pitch in the span of five minutes.
“Certainly the reason they’ve been in the playoffs and they’ve been so good is because they do things right,” Williams said. “We just happened to take advantage of one tonight.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes. The Nationals were ready and perfectly willing to seize upon a botched throw-and-catch on a sacrifice bunt attempt, then on the double-whammy of Michael Wacha’s wild pitch and Yadier Molina’s subsequent wild throw back to the plate, a play that allowed both Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa to score.
“You never see a ball get away from Yadi. Ever,” Williams said of the six-time Gold Glove catcher. “But that’s heads-up baserunning and aggressive baserunning.”
Desmond, perhaps the most prominent of several goats from Thursday’s loss, jumped at the opportunity to make amends in this one.
“You don’t ever expect Yadi to let one get away,” he said. “And then I saw it bounce off a little bit. I said: ‘We’ve got to take a chance here.’ And fortunately for us, it worked out.”
Things continued to work out for the Nationals the rest of the night. Storen wriggled his way out of an eighth-inning jam created by Tyler Clippard, retiring sluggers Matt Holliday and Allen Craig on a total of five pitches to strand the tying runner in scoring position.
And then Desmond made a picture-perfect turn of a game-ending double play, receiving Soriano’s throw and then leaping over a hard-sliding Mark Ellis to make an on-target throw to first.
As the crowd of 31,237 roared with approval, the Nationals gathered in the center of the diamond for a ritual not performed in some time: High-fives at the end of a game against the Cardinals. They hadn’t beaten St. Louis in their last eight tries, a stretch dating all the way back to Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS.
Given all that context, not to mention the manner in which Thursday’s game was lost, this was a particularly sweet victory.
“Any time you can beat a team like that, you’re going to be excited about it,” Storen said. “It’s never easy to beat those guys, and late in the game, they’re grinding it out. They’re a tough team all around. Any time you can get one from those guys, it’s a good night.”