The Nats entered Sunday two games under .500, fresh off an extra innings loss, after seven consecutive games where they had scored three runs or less. With a day-night doubleheader against the Twins in store, there was an unusual opportunity in their sights. They could gain some traction and do it quick.
Manager Davey Johnson took stock of the situation and called a team meeting in the morning. It was short and simple, a story from his playing days. But the message resonated and, judging by the outcome, must have worked.
The Nats scored a total of 12 runs on the day, which was more than all their previous games in June combined. The first win, a 7-0 drubbing of Minnesota, was a complete beatdown. The fifth inning alone brought five runs across, more than they had scored in an entire game since May 29.
Davey downplayed the move after the blowout, but will take the result.
“I’ll have one every day if we get 14 hits and seven runs,” he said. “It wasn’t much of a meeting. Just about three minutes. Just cheered ‘em up.”
Though Davey was modest about its impact, the message and intention was not lost among the players.
“I mean they don’t just give the Manager of the Year award away,” Ian Desmond said. “Davey’s got a pretty good eye on what’s going on in here and sometimes you just need that freedom from your manager to say, ‘Hey, just go up there, be aggressive and don’t hold anything back.’ He really freed us up today and you can give credit to him, too.”
The Nationals took advantage of the two-game set and broke even at 31-31 on the season, just in time for a day off before a long road trip. Instead of ending their homestand on a poor note, the Nats got a double dose of positive momentum.
“It was huge,” Desmond said “I don’t know if we’ve ever played a doubleheader where you pretty much had to win both. It’s not easy to take two in a doubleheader. We went into extra innings yesterday. We saw their bullpen, they saw ours. It’s just a long day.”
Desmond had three hits, two runs, and two RBI in the first game of the day and batted in the go-ahead run in the Nats’ second win. He scored Adam LaRoche on a seventh inning double that put the Nats up 5-4 and completed their first big comeback of the season. Washington had yet to rally from three runs down to pull out a victory.
Former Twins player Denard Span, who happened to tie the game in the sixth with an RBI triple, didn’t hold back when asked about the game’s potential meaning for the rest of the season.
“This was probably our best ballgame,” he said. “Normally early on in the season when we would get behind we would just fold and give away at-bats. We just kept fighting and having good at-bats.”
To get the two wins, the Nationals needed two very different performances from their pitching staff. In the first game, Jordan Zimmermann gave another spectacular outing. He went seven scoreless innings with just two hits allowed and eight strikeouts to secure his ninth win of the year. He now holds a 2.00 ERA on the season.
In the second game, the Nats had to overcome a shaky start by rookie Nathan Karns. Karns lasted only three innings after giving up four earned runs off five hits and three walks. It took six different members of Washington’s bullpen to patch together the final six innings, keeping the Nats in the game and in position to win.
Craig Stammen took over in the fourth inning to pitch two perfect innings. He was followed by Erik Davis and Fernando Abad who tag teamed the sixth. Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, and Rafael Soriano then took an inning each to polish off the win.
The Nats fell down 4-1 in the fourth inning in the second win and didn’t stage the comeback all at once. They scored a run in the third to cut the lead to two, and runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh to put them over the top. They were patient and chipped away slowly at a lead, eventually overcoming the Twins’ bullpen as theirs remained airtight.
Adam LaRoche described the team’s mindset when down on Sunday as more stable than they had usually been in other games this season. He said timely hitting, taking advantage of runners in scoring position early in the game, helped restore their confidence even when trailing.
“We just got some timely hits, which we haven't got,” he said. “When you don't get them you look flat. Team looks dead. Guys look like they're not into it out there when you're not hitting and not pitching. You do that and stuff just starts to come to life.”
“You've got more energy on the bench, you do this a few times and you get comfortable when you're down in a game. If you're down a couple runs in the fourth, fifth inning, you get the feeling that 'Chances are we're going to come back,' instead of 'here we go again.'”
The Nats got a blowout win to start the day and a comeback thriller to end it, about as good a result as they could have hoped for. But this team has been here before this season, feeling the high of a good day at the park and hoping it can carry over into the next.
Washington has a day off on Monday before they head to Colorado to play the Rockies. When asked if these games are enough to get the team back on track, back to playing as well as the 98-win club everyone saw last season, the veteran LaRoche was non-committal.
“We'll see Tuesday. We'll find out,” he said.