Nats getting close, but not quite there yet

Nats getting close, but not quite there yet
September 28, 2012, 4:34 am
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PHILADELPHIA -- They've won 95 games, matching the franchise record. They've won more games than they've lost every month this season. They've played .643 ball since snapping a five-game losing streak in Miami on August 29, clubbing 51 homers during those 28 games.

But as the final week of the regular season arrives, the Nationals have yet to celebrate anything, aside from the fact they're guaranteed to play at least one playoff game in October.

Even with Thursday night's 7-3 thumping of the Phillies, the Nationals only inched closer to the NL East title. Their magic number now at 3, they can't clinch the division until Saturday night in St. Louis at the earliest.

For that, they can thank the scorching-hot Braves, who simply won't concede the East without putting up a fight right down to the wire. Winners in 10 of their last 12, they remain four games back with six to play, still needing a miracle to overtake Washington but refusing to help their rivals finish the job.

"Take nothing for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "I know if we win three more, we're in, we win the pennant. That's all I want everybody in that room to figure on."

Knowing they can't count on Atlanta for much help these days, the Nationals (95-61) are pretty much throwing everything they have at the opposition each night, with Johnson doing whatever he thinks necessary to win a game and reduce that magic number by a single digit.

To win Thursday night, Johnson needed to weather a rocky first inning from Gio Gonzalez, coerce his lineup to put the hammer to Phillies rookie Tyler Cloyd and then fire his three best bullets out of the bullpen late, despite the fact his team lead by a fairly comfortable four runs.

The way this ballgame began, you might not have expected it to finish the way it did.

Five days after notching his 20th win of the season, Gonzalez was all over the place during a three-run, three-walk, 37-pitch first inning that left the hurler muttering to himself on the mound.

"I mean, if you looked at me, I looked like I had a split personality," he said. "I was talking to myself. I was just out there trying to beat myself up. I was just trying to get in my head a lot, just trying to figure it out, take myself out of the game as a third person and talk to myself every inning."

Gonzalez made it through the second inning without surrendering a run, but his pitch count was already at 55, and he had allowed seven of the first 11 batters he faced to reach base.

In the dugout, the left-hander approached his manager and sought to ease his concerns.

"Skip, I got this," Gonzalez said. "Stay with me."

Johnson's reply: "I plan on it," even though he later admitted his starter "about gave me a heart attack the first two innings."

With some help from catcher Kurt Suzuki and other teammates, Gonzalez managed to right his ship just in time and earn his 21st win. He wound up retiring 14 of the last 16 batters he faced, keeping the Phillies from scoring again and winding up with a quality start by the time he departed following the sixth.

"I think a lot of people can pitch well when things are going good," Suzuki said. "But it's the guys that can really bear down when they need to, when things aren't going their way or they aren't feeling their greatest. That showed Gio the maturity, how comfortable he feels out there. That shows tonight."

It certainly helped that the Nationals lineup got back the three runs Gonzalez allowed and then some, thanks to Bryce Harper's 21st homer and Michael Morse's 15th and 16th homers of the season.

Morse's second blast -- a 451-foot missile to right-center -- left everyone in the Nationals dugout (and especially the bullpen) celebrating. Why the bullpen? Not so much because Morse destroyed Cloyd's final pitch of the night, but because reliever Tom Gorzelanny managed to catch the ball on the fly in his cap.

"It was awesome," fellow reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That was fun. I was a little late on the jump. I might've tried to steal it from him, but ... good thing he caught it. If he missed it, that would've been pretty bad heckling for a few days."

With his pair of homers, Morse emphatically stated his lingering left wrist injury is not as much of a concern as it was a week ago, before he received some anti-inflammatory shots to help relieve the pain.

"It's more stable," he said. "Which makes it more, I guess, strong, back to normal. I don't have to think about it, which is good."

Johnson didn't have to think much about his bullpen, either, because the late-inning trio of Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shut the door on the Phillies and quashed any possibility of a reversal of fortune, retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced.

Thus sealed the Nationals' 95th victory, matching the 1979 Expos for the franchise record. That Montreal squad never got even a sniff of postseason play, finishing two games behind the Pirates in the NL East, with no Wild Card in place at the time.

This Nationals squad is guaranteed of at least a Wild Card berth. It's been counting down the days to a division title. But it's not quite there yet. There's still some work to be done this weekend in St. Louis.

And until that happens, they don't intend to take their foot off the gas pedal.

"Every game -- I don't care if it's a save situation or whatever -- we're putting our best foot forward. I told the guys: We've got three more we've got to win. Unless you
can't go, tell me you can't go."