Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano earned his sixth win with 5 1/3 strong innings.
The Nationals will take the field at steamy Nationals Park tomorrow afternoon riding a two-game winning streak, having twice beaten the Royals by a single run. Make no mistake: This will be as much of a must-win game for this team as any other this season.
Forget about trying to snap losing streaks or finishing a road trip on a high note. The Nats have the most-dominant pitcher in baseball outside of Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound tomorrow against one of the weakest opponents in the majors. This is where a good team goes for the jugular and puts the Royals out of their misery without ever giving them a chance.
The Nationals have tried their best the last two nights to give games away. Matt Capps pitched himself into a ninth-inning jam Monday night and he did it again tonight, somehow escaping without surrendering the tying run.
"It got a little hairy there at the end," Jim Riggleman said after a 4-1 lead turned into a 4-3 escape act. "But we'll take that."
Capps has danced with the devil often this season. But aside from one rough stretch three weeks ago, he's found a way to get the job done. Monday night, he put the tying and go-ahead runners on, then proceeded to strike out Yuniesky Betancourt and Mitch Maier in succession to preserve a 2-1 victory.
Tonight, he was summoned with a three-run lead in hand, allowed four hits that brought home two runs, then got Jason Kendall to pop out to end the game and secure league-leading save No. 22.
Go ahead and exhale, everyone. It's OK.
"I don't worry about the runs," Capps said. "It's nice not to have them score, but at this level, you're going to give up runs every now and then. I try to minimize the damage. Fortunately it came on a night where I had some runs to work with. ...
"The biggest thing to worry about is getting the third out before they get the third run."
Capps may not perform these closing duties the conventional way, but he does have the ... well, as Bill Raftery would describe it, the "onions" to come up big with the game on the line.
A blown save tonight would have been crushing, for several reasons. It would have squandered a couple of towering home runs by Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn, the latter of which ricocheted off the side wall of the batter's eye in center field, some 440 feet from the plate. It also would have squandered a fine outing by rookie Luis Atilano, who seems to perform admirably every time you're ready to think he's about to fall back to earth.
Don't look now, but Atilano is tied with Livan Hernandez for the lead among Nationals starters with six wins. Tonight, he managed to hold the Royals to one run over 5 1/3 innings, striking out five without issuing a walk. He also managed to overcome a vicious thunderstorm that came out of nowhere in the bottom of the fourth, sent fans and players alike scurrying for cover and forced Atilano to return to the mound after a 49-minute layoff.
He wasn't the same pitcher after the delay, but he was effective enough.
"I was pissed off when the rain started to come, because I was doing good," Atilano said. "But it happens."
Up three runs late, Riggleman tried to avoid using setup man Tyler Clippard, hoping Drew Storen could author two scoreless innings. But the rookie reliever got into trouble in the eighth and needed Clippard to bail him out.
Now, all of a sudden, the Nats may not have their full complement of late-inning relievers available for tomorrow's finale. Clippard and Capps have each pitched in high-stress situations the last two nights, and Storen threw 21 pitches in his inning-plus tonight.
"I was hoping to not use Clippard tonight," Riggleman said. "And if I finish that two with Storen, then I would not use him tomorrow. That was the plan, but it just didn't happen."
The best way the Nationals could ensure another escape act from a tired bullpen isn't required is to blow out the Royals tomorrow. With Strasburg on the mound against a weak-hitting lineup that has scored four runs in two days, they have to like their chances.
More importantly, a Nats lineup that pounded out 11 hits tonight but only pushed across four runs needs to put together a more-efficient performance against right-hander Brian Bannister (owner of a 5.70 ERA).
"[Strasburg] is going to give us a great chance to win tomorrow," Dunn said. "But if we don't score any runs for him, like his last start, it's all for nothing."
You said it, Adam. The pressure isn't on the Royals tomorrow. No one will expect them to make a dent into Strasburg's bullet-proof armor.
No, the pressure is on the Nationals to take this golden opportunity and seize it. Finish off a wounded opponent. Show no mercy. Complete a three-game sweep, then go up the road to Baltimore this weekend and take it to an equally inept Orioles club.
That's what good ballclubs do. The Nats insist they can be one. Let's find out if they mean it.