Nats pounce early, hang on late to beat Pirates

Nats pounce early, hang on late to beat Pirates
August 16, 2014, 12:00 am
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One by one, they stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first, hoping to put together quality at-bats but fully aware the percentages said more of them would make outs than didn't.

But then Denard Span beat out an infield single to get things started. And then Asdrubal Cabrera drew a walk to keep the pressure on Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton. And then Anthony Rendon singled, setting the stage for Adam LaRoche to deliver an RBI single to right-center. And when Ian Desmond walked to load the bases, up to the plate strode Bryce Harper with a chance to really inflict some damage.

Harper may not have put the game out of reach altogether, but his 2-run single over the second baseman's head did give the Nationals a quick 3-0 lead. He was the sixth consecutive batter to reach base to open the game, and that, more than anything, set the tone for what would eventually become a 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh after Rafael Soriano escaped a self-made jam in the ninth.

"We got some early chances and took advantage of them," manager Matt Williams said following his team's fourth straight win. "The thing you have to do to Morton, if you've got a chance to get him early, you want to, because he settles in really nice and starts getting a feel for everything out there. And he can run through a lineup quickly. So we took advantage of that tonight."

It was the eighth time this season the Nationals scored at least three runs in the first inning. And, quite frankly, they could've scored more. Span got thrown out trying to steal third base, giving away an out. And Wilson Ramos grounded into an inning-ending double play, squandering an opportunity to tack on even more against the Pirates.

No matter, because the Nationals did tack on more runs later, plating two more in the bottom of the third to knock Morton out of the game.

"We've been swinging the bat pretty dang well," Harper said of a lineup that has averaged 4.7 runs over its last 13 games. "Being able to have a deep lineup like we do, we just go up there, take pitches, draw walks, make him have long innings, throw a lot of pitches, get him out of there early and get to their bullpen. That was huge."

It also helps when a veteran slugger gets hot and makes up for the losses of two other key middle-of-order bats. With Jayson Werth (shoulder) and Ryan Zimmerman (hamstring) out at the moment, the Nationals need LaRoche to step up. Which he has.

With two more run-scoring singles in the first three innings of Friday night's game, LaRoche is now hitting .333 with four homers, nine RBI and a 1.100 OPS through the first half of August. This after a miserable July in which his OPS was a measly .465.

"It's better. No question, better," he said. "I hit those two balls tonight, hit them good and found the right spot. I found a hole. I feel two or three weeks ago, those are right at somebody. Potential double-play balls. Just the way this game goes. It kind of comes in streaks, and I'm feeling pretty good right now."

One key to LaRoche's recent success: He's hitting line drives to left-center field. It's been a point of emphasis in the batting cage, and it's showing in games.

"If you watch him take batting practice, he's really concentrating on hitting the ball shortstop side, and he did that once tonight," Williams said. "That just keeps him on the baseball."

Another key to the Nationals' offensive success, especially with Werth and Zimmerman out: Harper's slow-but-steady improvement. With a pair of hits Friday night, including his 2-run single in the first, the young outfielder is now hitting .313 with a .937 OPS and nine RBI over his last eight games. It took his 32 games to record his previous nine RBI.

"I was just happy [the first-inning hit] fell and we got those two RBIs and got the lead early and were able to get that W," Harper said.