PHOENIX — Inside the comfort of the clubhouse, the Washington Nationals insist they know it won’t last forever, that eventually they’ll lose a game or two again. They stress that thinking they won’t isn’t an option because it can only lead to a complacency they show no signs of developing.
But that’s not the way they feel each night on the field. And it’s not the way they play — as if it’s only a matter of time before they’re commanding each game.
The Washington Nationals won their eighth straight game Saturday night, beating the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-5 at Chase Field to move to 28 games over .500, three wins clear of every other team in baseball at 71-43.
They won a game they trailed by three runs early, a game in which starter Edwin Jackson clearly was operating without his best stuff. And a game in which their bullpen put the tying run in scoring position in three straight innings but never let one score.
They won on the back of a five-run fifth inning where they batted around and chased a potential Rookie of the Year candidate in left-hander Wade Miley in one of his worst starts of the season.
“The confidence,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said, “is at an all-time high right now.”
But it’s getting to the point in the season — the point at which the Nationals can play .500 ball the rest of the way and still finish with 95 victories — that it doesn’t matter how they win, only that they did.
“It’s more than the winning streak,” said catcher Jesus Flores, who threw out his first baserunner since June 13, a pivotal out that helped keep the deficit at three runs just before the offense exploded in the fifth.
“A lot of things are going on right now. The chemistry and the guys, communicating with each other, helping out each other and rooting for each other. … We’re having a good moment and we have to keep it up.”
For months, the Nationals‘ hitters praised their pitchers. They promised they’d pick them up eventually, that they’d give them some breathing room and some relatively stress-free innings. When Jackson got hit hard from the outset, immediately giving back a one-run lead in the first inning, and allowed five earned runs over 5 ⅔ innings, they were there.
They never wavered, never panicked and never let-up when the Diamondbacks began to show signs of weakness through errors in the field or pitches left in the middle of the plate. Seven of the Nationals‘ nine starters had at least one hit and the first four batters in the lineup were 6-for-18.
“Right now, we can afford to have a game like today,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “When you have a starter out there having to grind through it without his best stuff and still come away with a win. I think the first couple months, when we ran into a game like this, we were losing it.”
No more. The Nationals are no longer just a team with the best pitching staff in baseball guiding the way. They’re a team that has a lineup that’s getting deeper with health, though still missing Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos, and has averaged over five runs per game since July 1.
“When you’ve got everything going,” LaRoche said, “this is what you get.”
“The makeup of this lineup is totally different,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “It’s in attack mode. They’re not up there defending like a goalie. We’re out there trying to do some damage.”
“It’s experience and growing up,” he added. “We’re basically a young team. But it’s a bunch of guys that want it real bad and have got a lot of ability and they expect to win. … Up and down the lineup now they can feed off each other. That’s when you become a really good ballclub and that’s where we’re getting.”
Even when things got close, when the game was only separated by a run or two and relievers flirted with danger by putting runners on base, there was never a sense that the outcome would be any different.
“I really feel like, this bullpen, just don’t mess with it,” said left-hander Michael Gonzalez, who walked two in a scoreless eighth to provide one of the few late moments of anxiousness.
“It’s a calm confidence,” said closer Tyler Clippard, who picked up his 24th save with a perfect ninth. “Nobody gets too high or too low. Nothing changes. We’re not walking around like, ‘Oh, we’re the best.’ We’re just keeping our heads down and going about our business, playing each game like it’s a must-win game. It’s a lot of fun, man.”