On a warm Sunday afternoon on the final weekend of September, the Washington Nationals shut out a division opponent in a game with major playoff implications. The starting pitcher, a high draft pick and source of occasional frustration, pitched six shutout innings; Washington’s best offensive player smashed a two-run home run to break the game open in the late innings; and the team’s sterling bullpen pitched three perfect innings to secure the win.
OK, so the only team who had their playoff chances affected was the hapless Atlanta Braves, for whom the 3-0 loss was their 15th of the month of September. Atlanta’s lackluster performance, combined with the St. Louis Cardinals’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, cut the Braves’ lead in the National League wild card race down to a single game with three still to play.
But in every other respect, Sunday afternoon’s triumph in front of 37,638 festive fans — most of whom stood for the final out and some of whom stayed long after the team had left the field — represented what baseball in Washington could become if (and it’s admittedly a big if), the team continues to improve as planned. But more on that later. Here’s what you need to know for now: The Nationals will depart for their final three games of the season against the Florida Marlins with a record of 78-80 (they’ll play 161 games instead of 162 because the September 7 rainout against Los Angeles will not be made up). The franchise has not finished .500 since 2005, and if Washington manages to take all three games in Florida, the Nationals/Expos franchise will finish above .500 for the first time since 2003 (83-79).
Ross Detwiler, the aforementioned high draft pick (6th overall in 2007) turned in his third straight strong performance to close the season, pitching six shutout innings and only allowing four hits and two walks while striking out four. His only hiccup came in the third inning, when he allowed a single to David Ross and a walk to Jack Wilson before walking the opposing pitcher, Mike Minor, on four straight pitches despite Minor’s best efforts to sacrifice himself with a bunt. Relying on his sinker to get himself out of trouble, Detwiler went to a 3-0 count on Michael Bourn before finally throwing a strike. Bourn flied out to left fielder Michael Morse in foul territory. The next batter, Martin Prado, lifted a shallow fly ball to Jonny Gomes in right field before Chipper Jones grounded into a 5-4 forceout to end the inning.
Early on, the Nationals didn’t fare much better than the Braves when it came to driving runners in, as they left five runners on base over the first three innings. But Wilson Ramos made that disappointment go away in the bottom of the fourth inning as he roped a solo home run into the flower beds in front of the left-field seats. It was Ramos’ 15th of the season and capped a fine first full season in Washington. But as a signature moment, it paled in comparison to what came in the bottom of the seventh.
With the score still 1-0 after the Braves had failed to tie the game in the top of the fifth despite having runners on second and third with one out (Bourn and Prado the culprits again at the plate, lining out to second and flying out to right), Morse came to the plate with two outs and Ryan Zimmerman on first base after a single to left. Atlanta reliever Cristhian Martinez tried to sneak a high fastball past Morse on the outer half of the plate. It was a mistake, and Morse did what he’s done to most mistakes this season: he crushed it into the seats. It was 3-0, and that was more than enough for the Nationals bullpen, as Henry Rodriguez (who struck out the side in the seventh), Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen took care of their innings in order.
What 2012 holds for the Nationals is far from certain. They will still be playing in a very tough division with some very young pieces (Ian Desmond’s progress or lack thereof will be particularly interesting to watch in his third full season, while Danny Espinosa will look to build on a strong rookie season), not to mention a young front two in their rotation (Strasburg and Zimmermann). It is very much an open question whether Jayson Werth can build on his relatively strong second half of this season, as is whether Michael Morse can match his production from this year.
But never mind that for now. On Sunday, the sun was out and the Nationals walked off the field winners, and indisputably a better team than the one the walked off the field for the last time in 2010. That should be good enough to keep you warm for the winter.