We've already seen in this young season the Nationals run themselves out of a potential victory with some over-aggressiveness on the bases. Painful as their 2-1 loss to the Braves in Friday's home opener was, players insisted they'll benefit in the long run if they keep applying pressure the way new manager Matt Williams has preached.
The payoff came Tuesday night during a 5-0 win over the Marlins, a win sparked in large part by a sixth-inning sequence in which Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper combined to swipe three bases off pitches in the dirt.
"There's wise times to do it, and times when the score will dictate whether to try and take the extra base," LaRoche said. "We were in position all day today to go take that extra base, if possible, and take some extra chances. So again, that's what Matty's been preaching all spring training. Obviously, be heads-up and know the situation. But when there's an opportunity, take a chance there and put pressure on them."
That LaRoche made key contributions to this victory not with his bat and not with his glove but with his legs only added to the drama. The veteran first baseman not only took two of the extra bases on Henderson Alvarez's sixth-inning wild pitches, he also scored all the way from first on Anthony Rendon's double in the bottom of the eighth.
"Doesn't happen too often," he said of his big night on the bases. "So, yes, when I do, I soak that up. Yeah, not every day do I get to go take an extra base or go first-to-home. I told Rendon after the game, I said: 'Hey, way to swing it, but next time put that ball in the seats because I don't know if I can hold up at 34 years old with you guys running me that much.'"
The biggest moment came in the sixth, with LaRoche on first and Harper on third, with two outs and Ian Desmond at the plate. During a pregame scouting meeting, Nationals coaches noted that while it was difficult to steal off Alvarez, he did have a tendency to throw a lot of pitches in the dirt. Members of the lineup were instructed to be ready to bolt if they reached base and Alvarez's command was off.
"That's something we talked about before the game," Williams said. "If we get an opportunity to do that, be ready for it and be alive for it. It's a part of the gameplan going in."
Sure enough, Alvarez's 2-0 pitch bounced and dribbled about five feet away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. LaRoche never hesitated; he immediately took off for second base.
"There's two ways to do that," LaRoche said. "You either see it off of him and see where it's bouncing, or read it out of their hand and when there's a trajectory that's going to put it in the dirt, you take off early. Everybody's a little different, but I like the fact that the offense is thinking that way and thinking take the extra base, thinking about moving on balls in the dirt, stealing bases. And if we do it enough, good things are going to happen."
Saltalamacchia's throw actually had LaRoche beat by a couple of inches, but second baseman Jeff Baker couldn't make a clean catch-and-tag, so LaRoche was safe. And as that all played out, Harper took off from third base, scoring without even drawing a throw.
Moments later, LaRoche took third base on another wild pitch, putting him in position to score on Rendon's RBI single.
Just like that, the Nationals turned a 1-0 lead into a 3-0 lead, one that helped spur them to a well-earned victory Tuesday night.
"We have to make sure that we take advantage of those opportunities," Williams said. "So as long as we're prepared for it and we're expecting it, then we're able to do it. If you don't expect it, then you're a tick late all the time. It's something that, those little things within the game, we want to make sure we're good at. Advancing on a ball in the dirt if it gets away from the catcher, things like that."