Nationals win again, now within 7 of Wild Card

Nationals win again, now within 7 of Wild Card
August 28, 2013, 12:15 am
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The Nationals are not keeping one eye on the out-of-town scoreboard as they stand at the plate, in the field or on the mound. They aren't huddled around the clubhouse TVs watching pennant race games and living and dying with each momentum swing. Ask anybody on the roster how many games back they are at any given moment and you're unlikely to get a correct response.

"We're playing good right now on our own," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "It's not really up to anybody else besides ourselves. All we can do is go out and play, and the rest will take care of itself."

Desmond is partially correct. The Nationals are playing quite well right now. Their 2-1 victory over the Marlins Tuesday night was their 12th over their last 17 games, easily their best stretch of the season.

But it doesn't matter how well the Nationals play over the final five weeks of what has to this point been a disappointing year unless somebody ahead of them in the standings simultaneously falls apart.

That hasn't happened yet. But if nothing else, the gap is slowly diminishing.

The Reds lost their second straight in St. Louis on Tuesday. All of a sudden, the Nationals' deficit in the NL Wild Card race is down to seven games, six in the loss column.

That's still a hefty difference to make up in only five weeks. But this race isn't officially over just yet.

"We feel like we're playing good baseball, and we're just kind of taking every day as it comes," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "That's all we can do. We feel very confident in how we're playing, and we'll take it from there. Who knows what's going to happen?"

The Nationals have righted their ship over the last 2 1/2 weeks not because of any one dramatic turn of events but because they've performed better in nearly every facet of the game. They're also getting positive contributions from some unlikely sources.

Consider the fact the first 18 outs recorded by Nationals pitching on Tuesday came via the right arms of Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark, two non-roster spring invitees who were never in contention for a spot among the Opening Day 25.

Those two, though, have combined to go 7-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 19 appearances this summer, including five-plus innings of one-run ball on Tuesday from Ohlendorf and then another scoreless inning from Roark.

That combination — Ohlendorf in the rotation, Roark in long relief — has worked well, but Davey Johnson suggested he plans to flip-flop the two moving forward, concerned about Ohlendorf's penchant for running out of gas by the time he reaches the fifth inning.

"That's probably what we're going to do," Johnson said. "But I'll make that decision probably tomorrow."

Ohlendorf, for his part, said he felt as strong by the end of his start Tuesday as he did when he took the mound, insisting he purposely took something off his fastball in the top of the sixth, when his velocity plummeted from the mid-90s to the mid-80s. Christian Yelich hammered his final pitch into the right-field bullpen for a solo homer.

"They were just kind of BP fastballs. Which I had thrown earlier in the game, too," the veteran right-hander said. "I've thrown [them] at different times this year. They need to be in better spots."

Whatever the case, the Nationals do legitimately want to get a look at Roark as a starter, where he spent most of his minor-league career.

I feel like it's all the same," the 26-year-old rookie said. "Like I said, as long as I'm out there on the mound, helping the team out the best I can. Competing is my biggest thing, going out there and competing against a major-league hitter. This is it. This is the major leagues."

Nobody who took the ball Tuesday night had any margin for error, not with the Nationals scoring two quick runs in the bottom of the first and then getting shut down the rest of the evening. Yelich's homer in the sixth trimmed the lead to 2-1, and that's where it remained.

Roark had to pitch out of a jam, recording back-to-back strikeouts with the tying runner on second base. Drew Storen retired the side in the seventh, bouncing back from a shaky outing over the weekend in Kansas City. Tyler Clippard then authored the most-dominant inning of the night, retiring the side in the eighth and striking out Giancarlo Stanton on three pitches.

Most remarkable about Clippard's encounter with Stanton? He threw the feared Marlins slugger three straight fastballs and got him to swing and miss at all three.

"I don't think [Stanton] had seen three fastballs all year long," Desmond said. "I think he probably walked back to the dugout thinking: 'What just happened?' But kudos to Clip for doing his job and doing it well."

"Traditionally, a hitter like that sees a lot of off-speed stuff," Clippard explained. "And the fact that I got ahead of him, I was trying to use his aggressiveness against him and stay hard. It was close enough where he had to swing, and he did."

Clippard's strikeout of Stanton was the high point of the game, but this victory still required a scoreless ninth from Rafael Soriano, who hasn't enjoyed many of those in recent weeks. Soriano did surrender a two-out single to Justin Ruggiano, but he immediately got Adeiny Hechavarria to ground out, securing the Nationals' 12th win in 17 games and giving everyone reason to keep watching at least a bit longer.

"We've all been through our ups and downs," Desmond said. "Obviously the downs were pretty heavy this year. But we fought our way [back] and we're starting to play better. Obviously we're not where we want to be, but we're taking steps in the right direction."