Sunday, April 17, 2011, 4:56 p.m.
Updated at 9:40 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
The hits would come, the Nationals kept insisting, even as batting averages tumbled below the Mendoza line and the team's collective slugging percentage threatened to fall below .300. As long as they kept getting quality performances from their pitching staff, everyone was confident the bats would do their part.
And then on Sunday, the Nationals saw everything come together in a perfect little package. They got two more quality performances from their pitching staff. And they finally got the offensive explosion everyone was waiting for.
The end result: A thoroughly satisfying doubleheader sweep of the Brewers (by scores of 8-4 and 5-1) that left the Nationals with a winning record and spirits soaring.
"Fifteen games is nothing. We've got a long way to go, and a lot can happen," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "But if we keep playing like this, it might be a good situation."
As long as the Nationals' rotation continues to pitch like this, and as long as they get the occasional clutch hit, they're certainly going to be in position to win every time they take the field. They proved that twice on Sunday in a rare, traditional doubleheader that saw some unlikely offensive heroes emerge.
Danny Espinosa led the way, clubbing a three-run homer in Game 1 and a three-run triple in the nightcap. Each hit gave the Nationals the lead.
"I guess it's not always about having a ton of hits," said Espinosa, who suddenly leads the team with 14 RBI despite a .256 average. "Obviously everyone would like to have a lot of hits, get two or three a game. But it feels great when it's a timely hit and gives your team a chance to win a ballgame."
Ivan Rodriguez also chipped in a three-run homer in the opener, providing more than enough offensive support for starter Jason Marquis, who pitched into the eighth inning for only the second time since signing with the Nationals.
"I'm just glad I can contribute and get on board with the win," said Marquis, who departed to a standing ovation. "We're grinding it out right now. Guys aren't starting off as hot as they want to. And yet we're at .500."
Actually, the Nationals are over .500 for the first time since May 29, 2010. For that, they could thank Livan Hernandez, whose latest quality start earned the veteran a win in the nightcap.
Hernandez scattered six hits over seven innings, allowing only one run (on Yuniesky Betancourt's fourth-inning single). Otherwise, the right-hander was efficient and effective, not issuing a walk while needing only 88 pitches to complete his evening.
This was only the latest in a growing string of impressive outings by the Nationals' rotation, which has now allowed three earned runs or fewer in 13 of 15 games this season despite the lack of a true ace.
"It's not about who has more good-looking names," said Hernandez, now 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA. "We're working hard and trying to be the best every time we go outside and try to give a chance for the team to win."
Marquis has given the Nationals a chance to win each time he has taken the mound this season. He weathered some early troubles on Sunday (two runs and eight hits allowed through four innings) but settled in during the later stages of the contest. At one point, he retired 10 of 11 hitters, using a heavy sinker to force the Brewers into pounding the ball into the ground.
All that bought time for the Nationals' lineup to spring to life against Yovani Gallardo. It began with Espinosa's three-run homer into the right-field bullpen in the fifth, then continued one inning later when Rodriguez sent his own three-run homer over the right-field fence.
It was Rodriguez's first homer of the season and raised his RBI total from four to seven (second on the roster behind Espinosa).
"Pudge's ball was huge," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I just wanted to make sure he got a ball up, so we'd at least get something in the air so we wouldn't have a play at the plate with their infield in. He got a ball up and really drove it."
Ian Desmond, who had been 0-for-29 at home this season, added a late double and solo homer of his own to cap the surprising offensive explosion.
The bats weren't quite as productive in the nightcap, though the Nationals needed only one big hit from Espinosa to take the lead late. With the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh, Riggleman sent pinch-hitter Matt Stairs to the plate. The veteran, though, rapped a grounder to second, with Rickie Weeks throwing to the plate for a force out.
Espinosa immediately picked up his teammate, lacing a line drive past a diving Ryan Braun in left field, clearing the bases and sliding in safely to third with the go-ahead triple.
"I knew that I had to just get a good pitch to hit," Espinosa said. "When I try to do too much is when I'm not successful with runners in scoring position. Right there, I just needed to put something in play hard."
Drew Storen then closed out the Nationals' second victory of the day, completing a three-game sweep of the Brewers and sending Washington on this week's road trip with an 8-7 record and reason to believe its previously slumping lineup has finally come to life.
"Here's the thing: We've been playing pretty good baseball, and we haven't hit as a team," said Jerry Hairston, who went 3-for-3 with a homer in the nightcap. "We feel like we're a pretty good ballclub. And for us to stay in games, it's a credit to our pitching staff and our defense. We feel that we have guys with good track records swinging the bat. We've just got to stay after that."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.