Nationals clinging to slim playoff chances
The 2013 season for the Washington Nationals is on track to end without a trip to the postseason, as the playoffs are a longshot with nine games left and a five-game deficit to overcome.
But with Thursday’s 3-2 victory over the Marlins, the Nats took home win No. 82 and ensured they will at the very least finish with a winning season. It’s already the second best year the franchise has enjoyed since moving to Washington, D.C. and it’s not over yet.
Any other year and their 82nd win would mark a milestone, it would demonstrate the positive direction this organization is heading in, players would be happy with what they’ve accomplished.
Not this club. Not this year.
“I think moving in the right direction is something that we've all kind of looked past,” Ian Desmond said.
“I think at the end of the year last year when I went home and reflected on the season I think it didn't really even matter how many games we won. We came in whatever place it was, fifth or sixth and if you don't win the World Series, you're really not doing what you signed up to do.”
The Nats recovered from a heartbreaking loss to the Atlanta Braves the night before to return to the win column in this first of a four-game series. They still haven’t lost consecutive games in the month of September with a 13-4 overall record.
Gio Gonzalez pitched a day earlier than expected due to Stephen Strasburg’s forearm tightness, and gave the Nats six innings with seven hits and two runs allowed. He fared well despite the short notice.
“I found out that information the night before,’ he said. “I was just grateful enough I didn’t go throw a bullpen and I stayed healthy and strong enough to pitch a regular game.”
Gonzalez gave up a run before recording an out in the top of the first and threw 62 pitches through three innings before settling in. He needed just eight pitches in the fourth and 11 in the fifth, allowing him to go six and earn the win on his 28th birthday.
“It’s always nice to get a win on your birthday. It’s almost like a gift to yourself,” he said.
The Nats helped Gonzalez out with three runs in the bottom of the first inning, quickly erasing the early deficit. All three came on a home run Bryce Harper dropped into the first row of seats in right-center field.
It was Harper’s 20th homer of the season, making him just the second player in baseball history to have two such seasons before the age of 21. The other was Red Sox sensation Tony Conigliaro (1964-65).
Desmond thinks these past two years for Harper are just the beginning.
“It's unbelievable and he's only getting better,” he said. “Twenty home runs now, we're going to look back and he's going to be like, ‘oh man, I only hit 20 home runs my first two years?’ I mean those days are coming. It's inevitable that those days are coming. I just hope it's here and I hope I get to see it.”
Usually quick to downplay personal accomplishments, Harper can appreciate this one’s place in history.
“I’m excited about it. We got a long ways to go,” he said. “Hopefully I can build off that.”
Harper also gave the Nats their fifth player with 20 home runs this season. That’s a franchise record and just the third time an MLB team has hit that mark this year.
Now, despite a win for the Nationals, this was a game that also featured a few unfortunate moments.
After Harper’s first inning home run, Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez began the next at-bat against Desmond with a three-ball count. He then smoked him in the shoulder, inches from his head, with a 95 mile per hour two-seam fastball.
The incident saw Jayson Werth walk up the dugout steps and point to home plate umpire Bill Welke as he issued warnings to both dugouts. Bench coach Randy Knorr took it a step further by walking out onto the field and was subsequently ejected for doing so.
Several players, including Desmond, wouldn’t say Alvarez did it on purpose. But Davey Johnson did.
‘What the umpire did was wrong, he obviously intentionally hit him, and to me, that’s an ejection. A warning doesn’t do anything,” he said.
“It’s real obvious when you give up a home run and then you get 3-0 on a guy and then you drill him. To me, you’re throwing at somebody on purpose. And I think the proper thing is to eject him.”
The game also saw Denard Span’s 29-game hit streak come to a finish. He entered the night 4-for-6 off Alvarez, but went 0-for-3 against him in the win. He ended up 0-for-4 overall, one game short of Ryan Zimmerman’s Nationals record and two short of Vladimir Guerrero’s franchise mark.
The Nats got the victory despite an uneven finish by its bullpen as well. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano all let on baserunners in their respective innings before Soriano secured his 42nd save of the year.
“Gave me a heart attack. Check my pulse,” Johnson said after the game.
Johnson also defined what he will consider a successful year. They entered the season with expectations of a championship, the manager himself proclaiming ‘World Series or bust.’
Those dreams have been tempered, but it’s not quite over yet.
“We’ve been playing really good lately,” Johnson said. “I never lost faith in the talent, but it’ll be a good year, as far as I’m concerned, when we’re at 90 games and take what happens.”