Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn congratulates Alberto Gonzalez upon scoring in the fifth.
Yes, that was a tangible sigh of relief emanating from the Nationals' dugout. Rest easy, everyone. They've won a ballgame again.
Actually, the Nats did more than win a ballgame tonight. They won an incredibly well-played ballgame against a top opponent. Few victories this season can match this 7-2 triumph over the Braves for sheer execution top-to-bottom. Amazingly, this was only the sixth time this year they won a game by five or more runs.
"That's about as clean a game as we've played in a while," Jim Riggleman said, adding: "It's encouraging to remind ourselves that we can play like that."
Everyone needs a little reminder once in a while, especially when the last week had been so trying. It wasn't just the fact the Nationals had lost five in a row. They've been through longer losing streaks before. It was the manner in which they lost those five games. Four of them by one run. Three of them blown leads in Baltimore. Monday's seventh-inning meltdown with Stephen Strasburg on the mound.
If ever the Nats needed a game like this, tonight was the night.
"I don't think we ever felt pressure," Ryan Zimmerman said. "It sucks losing four or five or however many in a row. Whether we've won five in a row or lost five in a row, I think we have the same amount of confidence that we're going to win every game. You've got to be like that in this game or it will wear you out."
The Nationals were starting to look like a worn-out bunch. Mistakes were being made in the field and on the bases. Leads were not being held. Clutch hits were not being produced. The manager felt the need to hold a closed-door meeting.
In the end, the Nats just needed to play a good ballgame, and the tone had to be set by the guy taking the mound for the first inning. Craig Stammen had that task tonight, and boy did he come through with a big-time pitching performance. Summoned back from a three-week exile in Syracuse, the right-hander picked up right where he left off, churning out 7 1/3 quality innings to earn the victory.
Did you know that over his last five starts (his final outing in D.C. before his demotion, then three starts at Class AAA, then tonight's return) Stammen is 3-0 with a 2.12 ERA, 16 strikeouts and only five walks?
"He earned the right to come back up," Riggleman said.
Stammen wasn't totally surprised earlier this month when he learned he was the guy getting sent down to make room for Strasburg. Despite a strong outing that day against the Reds, he had been wildly inconsistent all season.
That didn't mean the 26-year-old was pleased to accept the demotion.
"It's part of the game, but you're going to be spitting fire," he said. "I wasn't happy about it, and I was going to do everything I could to not make it a long stay there and make it back."
The key was rediscovering what made him a successful big-league pitcher at times over the last two seasons, namely the confidence to throw his sinker in the strike zone and get hitters to pound it into the ground.
"Once you've had success here, you feel like you can continue to do that," he said. "It's in the bottle. You've just got to find it and get it out."
Stammen must now prove he can sustain it at this level. He'll get another chance Sunday against an equally tough Mets lineup.
Likewise, the Nationals must prove they can sustain their performance from tonight and not fall back into the traps that killed them the previous five days. They need to play clean baseball in the field. They need to not run themselves into outs on the bases. They need to come through with clutch hits. They need to slam the door shut on the opposition when they hold a lead.
And they need to remember that one well-played game doesn't completely right the ship.
"I hope we don't relax too much, because that's just one win," Riggleman said. "It's been more than a tough five days. It seems like it's been three weeks, four weeks or something. ... I just hope we take that type of baseball out there more consistently. That don't mean you're going to win them all. But play that type of baseball, and you've got a chance."