In the immediate aftermath of Thursday evening's team-record-tying 10th straight victory, it's apparent that the Washington Nationals are finally living up to their potential and putting the rest of the National League, if not all of baseball, on notice. Better yet, they've been doing it lately in dramatic—and eerily similar—fashion.
The Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 1-0 when third baseman Jordan Pacheco's throw skipped past first baseman Mark Trumbo and into the camera well next to Washington's dugout, allowing leadoff hitter Denard Span to score the deciding run.
The final play at Nationals Park looked like this:
The drama? Well, aside from the scoreless eight-and-a-half innings, Thursday's win was the Nationals' second consecutive of the walk-off variety and—get this—their fifth in six games.
The eerie similarity? For the second straight day, the game ended with reliever Evan Marshall on the mound for Arizona and Anthony Rendon hitting a ball toward third base to plate the winning run.
On Wednesday, Rendon—out of the starting lineup for the first time since June 10—came up as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth and knocked the game-winning RBI single to score Bryce Harper.
Keep an eye out for the similarities in the highlight of that walk-off:
"We just feel confident," Span said via Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post, "that somehow, someway, we’re going to find a way to inch off a victory."
With the win, the Nationals are now a season-high 20 games above .500 at 73-53. Not only that, but they also have the best record in the Senior Circuit, and it's starting to feel like this club isn't going to give up that throne any time soon. Especially after how things played out last season.
The 2013 campaign was an outright disappointment, as Washington fell behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East very early and didn't really hit its stride until mid-August, by which point it was far too late. To wit, exactly a year ago, on Aug. 21, the Nats, who finished just 86-76 amid sky-high expectations, were 15.0 games behind Atlanta.
This year? It's the Braves who entered Thursday seven games back.
Still, as utility man Kevin Frandsen told Bill Ladson of MLB.com after Wednesday's walk-off:
It's the middle of August. We have to continue to play good baseball. The Braves are not going to give in. The Marlins are not going to give in. People are sleeping on other teams, you can't do that. We have to keep playing good baseball, continue to hit the baseball the way we do, pitch the ball, catch the ball and do all that.
The Nationals certainly have been doing "all that" over the past 10 games. In fact, they've been doing a lot of that for most of the season.
They have a 3.03 team ERA, the second-lowest overall and best in the NL. That's been achieved through both the rotation and the bullpen.
With the explosive Stephen Strasburg (3.41 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, NL-best 198 strikeouts), steady Jordan Zimmermann (2.97, 1.15), underrated Doug Fister (2.20, 1.05), unheralded Tanner Roark (2.80, 1.09) and lone lefty Gio Gonzalez, Washington's rotation is among the best and deepest in baseball.
The relief corps features two of the best setup men in the business in Tyler Clippard (1.95) and Drew Storen (1.54) in front of closer Rafael Soriano (2.49, 29 SV).
As if proving the prowess of the pitching staff, Gonzalez, who has been inconsistent since returning from a midseason stint on the disabled list, fired seven scoreless innings with seven strikeouts Thursday. The effort lowered his ERA to 3.83 and his WHIP to 1.31.
Meanwhile, the offense has also been firing on all cylinders, especially since the All-Star break.
Led by Span (.388 average since the break), Rendon (MLB-best 88 runs), Ian Desmond (team highs of 20 homers and 77 RBI), Jayson Werth (.283/.375/.434) and Adam LaRoche (team-topping .838 OPS), Washington checks in with the second-most runs scored in the sport (144) over the second half so far.
And that's without much in the way of production from Harper, as the 21-year-old is still trying to get himself going after missing a chunk of the year with a torn thumb ligament. He does, though, sport a .375 on-base percentage since the break. If he and Ryan Zimmerman, who remains on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, can find their form down the stretch, Washington will be even better.
Not that they aren't already the best in the NL.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been in first in the NL Central for all but three days this season, but they're up there with the Kansas City Royals as the two most surprising division leaders. Claiming they are better than the Nationals is taking things a bit too far.
And all of the sudden, the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers are looking less vaunted and more vulnerable. The big names are there and performing, but a few of them are battling injuries: shortstop Hanley Ramirez is on the DL with a strained oblique; lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu is on the shelf with a glut strain; and right-hander Zack Greinke is having his start pushed back due to elbow soreness, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
The Nationals' luck, on the other hand, appears to be turning—finally—as Kilgore writes:
The 2014 Nationals have been a dominant team all season long. It took the magic of the past 10 days for their record to reflect it, for their luck to catch up to their NL-best, plus-102 run differential. The Nationals...have won twice in extra innings and seven games by one run over their winning streak. Before it, they had gone 5-8 and 13-18 in such coin-flip contests. A prolonged run of success was probably inevitable. It didn’t have to be such a giddily fun ride.
The way things are shaping up now—not to mention, the way they're playing lately—the Nationals are making good on all those expectations. They're just doing it a year later than expected.
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