Nationals top Astros to take first place in NL East

Nationals top Astros to take first place in NL East
June 17, 2014, 10:45 pm
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GAME IN A NUTSHELL: On the heels of a long — and quite eventful — road trip, the Nationals came home an enigma of sorts. Was this a team starting to put everything together for the long haul, or was a weekend sweep in St. Louis a harbinger of more struggles to come? We don't know the answer quite yet, but there is plenty of reason for optimism after this homestand-opening win over the Astros.

At the plate, the Nationals reverted to the form they displayed on the West Coast, scoring four runs on tough Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel while getting contributions from several spots throughout the lineup (headlined by Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon). In the field, they got a couple of nifty plays by Ian Desmond, who now sports an 18-game error-less streak. And even though Tanner Roark wasn't in top form, the right-hander still held the Astros to one run over five innings.

Things did get a bit too tense late, with Tyler Clippard battered for four runs in the top of the eighth, the firstearned  runs the setup man had surrendered in 25 appearances. But Aaron Barrett was able to clean up the mess and keep a 1-run lead intact before handing things over to Rafael Soriano, who closed it out for his 14th save.

With that, the Nationals not only snapped their 4-game losing streak. They not only got this key homestand off on the right foot, they also took over first place in the NL East after the Braves lost to the Phillies.

HITTING HIGHLIGHT: After seeing their once red-hot bats go cold over the weekend against the Cardinals, the Nationals might not have known what to expect when they took the field tonight. Turns out they bore far more resemblance to the crew that tore up San Francisco than the one that was shut down in St. Louis. Leading the charge were the two third basemen ... er, the current third baseman and the former (and possibly future) third baseman. Rendon got things started with an RBI double in the bottom of the first, with Zimmerman following suit three batters later. Zimmerman added another RBI double in the third, this one to the opposite field, then Rendon roped a two-run two-bagger into the left-field corner in the bottom of the sixth, extending the Nationals' lead to 6-1. Turns out they needed those insurance runs.

PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: The results may have looked good, but truth be told, Roark didn't. The right-hander was all over the place, struggling to find the command he usually boasts. He scattered seven hits and two walks over his five innings, running up a whopping pitch count of 95. Somehow, though, Roark managed to limit the damage. Even when he got himself into a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fourth, he allowed only one of the runners to score (on a comebacker that glanced off his foot). Roark continues to show he's more than meets the eye. To watch him tonight, you'd think he had been roughed up by the Astros. Then glance at the scoreboard, and you realize he actually lowered his ERA to 2.85.

KEY STAT: The Nationals are now 20-0 this season when both Denard Span and Anthony Rendon score a run.

UP NEXT: This brief, two-game series wraps up at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday when Gio Gonzalez makes his return to the Nationals' rotation after exactly one month on the DL with shoulder inflammation. Veteran right-hander Scott Feldman starts for Houston.