Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez earned his 10th win and clubbed his first homer in beating the Braves.
The Nationals have had their effort questioned a few times this season, including as recently as Sunday when Jim Riggleman and his coaches gave them a tongue-lashing after an uninspiring performance against the Marlins.
There was no questioning it tonight during a 6-0 victory over the Braves. It was all there on display, from Dunn's tape-measure home run to Desmond's exclamation point blast in the ninth to Danny Espinosa's hustle to Livo's pitching (and hitting) brilliance.
Put it all together, and you've got the end of a six-game losing streak that clearly had been weighing on everyone's minds. How much did the Nats need a win?
"I would say pretty bad," Dunn said. "We're just a weird team. We just can't seem to put everything together on a consistent basis. Everything's here. But we get good pitching for two weeks and we can't hit anything. Then we'll swing the bats good for two weeks and can't get anybody out. It's just a really weird team to figure out."
There was nothing weird about this one. This was one of the Nats' best all-around performances of the season, and it started with Hernandez, who had been in something of a rut lately (1-3, 9.70 ERA his last four outings) and may have left doubters questioning the club's decision to reward him already with a 2011 contract.
By now, though, we all should know this much: Never doubt Livo. The guy's been doing this too long and has had too much success to suddenly crumble at the end of a superb season.
"He was so good tonight," Riggleman said. "He just reminds us over and over that it's all about pitching. It's not about the radar gun. It's just really a great lesson for everybody on the staff to watch how he works."
This was Hernandez's 30th start of the season, the 13th consecutive year in which he's reached that benchmark for durability. Think about how many pitchers have succumbed to injuries — significant and insignificant — since Livo's streak began in 1998. Not this guy.
"It's not easy to be there every five days for so many years," he said. "Sometimes I pitch when my body's hurt. I pitched one year with my knee completely out of it. I've got a lot of pride. I love this game. I don't know how it's going to be the day I don't pitch every five days. It's not going to be a good day for me."
Hernandez also takes pride in his ability to hit, a skill that for some reason has eluded him this season. Owner of a career .221 batting average and 76 RBI, he entered tonight's game hitting .115 with one RBI.
Then he roped a run-scoring double off Jair Jurrjens in the top of the second. And then he crushed a hanging slider from Jurrjens two innings later for his 10th career home run.
"I like to hit, and I like to help the team win," he said. "Next year I think I'll come back better. I think I've got to lower my bat. I use a 35 (ounce). I've got to start using a 34."
How many other pitchers do you know who pay that much attention to the weight of their bat? For Livo, though, there's always been a lot more to this game than pitching. He cares about performing at the plate. He cares about performing in the field. And he cares about churning out as many innings as possible.
He certainly felt like he could finish tonight's game and go after the 50th complete game and ninth shutout of his career. And Riggleman considered it. But with Livo's pitch count at 118, the manager would have had to send him back to the mound with a short leash. And Hernandez doesn't like to pitch with so little rope, so the two sides agreed his night would end after the eighth.
Not that the Nationals weren't already in good shape at that point, up 6-0 thanks to a couple of towering home runs by Dunn and Desmond.
If you missed tonight's game, find a replay of Dunn's second-inning moonshot. It's worth it. The ball landed on the concourse behind the center-field bleachers at Turner Field, a spot locals rarely recall being invaded in the ballpark's 14-year history.
There's a sign behind those bleachers that notes it's 460 feet from home plate to that spot. And Dunn's homer sailed past that and deeper toward center field. Somehow, the Braves' official estimate came in at 455 feet, leaving the Nats incredulous.
"I don't know who's measuring these things," Desmond said. "I don't know a lot about physics; I only went to high school. But I think it has to go farther [than 460 feet] if it went past the sign."
Dunn's poke was his 35th of the season. He'll need five more over the Nats' final 17 games — and it sounds like he's going to be out of the lineup for tomorrow's series finale against left-hander Mike Minor — to reach the 40-homer plateau for the sixth time. But whether he gets there or not, his calling card remains the same.
"Rickey Henderson steals bags," Dunn said. "Nolan Ryan strikes people out. And I try to hit home runs. That's kind of what I do. If I didn't hit home runs, I wouldn't be in this league, that's for sure."
Desmond's ninth-inning homer (a 427-foot blast to center) didn't reach Dunn territory, but it was no less impressive. It was the rookie shortstop's 10th home run of the season, and it capped off a solid night in which he went 2-for-4 with a sacrifice bunt while excelling in the field.
It also came one night after a nightmare game in which Desmond struck out four times and committed his major-league-leading 33rd error. Sensing the 24-year-old might be physically and mentally in need of a break, Riggleman offered him a day off. Desmond wouldn't even let his manager get the full question out before shooting him down.
"I want to play," Desmond said. "I've been 0-for-4 before. I've had four strikeouts before. If that's going to stop me, you're not going to be a big-leaguer. I just wanted to get back out there and put it behind me. Today was a new day."
Count Desmond's manager among those impressed.
"He didn't back away from the competition," Riggleman said. "That's a special type of guy we've got there that is going to set the tone for a lot of people. Never mind what the batting average says. He is just really some kind of special person."
Stuck in a six-game losing streak, their season long since over, these Nationals are in a tenuous position. It's easy to pack it in and go through the motions these next three weeks. And there may be nights when it appears they do.
On this night, that wasn't going to happen. Not if Livan Hernandez, Adam Dunn and Ian Desmond had anything to say about it.