Associated Press photo
Henry Rodriguez, Adam LaRoche and Chad Tracy all played key roles in today's win.
Is it possible for a ballclub to establish an identity only two games into a 162-game season?
"I think it is too early," Danny Espinosa said. "I don't think that's going to be our identity all year -- just come back, come back, come back. We don't want to be in that position every single game. We don't want to have to fight to try to get two runs. We want to jump out early and hopefully get a lead."
The young second baseman paused for a moment and added what surely others inside the jubilant visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field were thinking.
"But it's good to know that we have that as a team in the back pocket," Espinosa said, "that we don't die and we continue to fight."
It's only two games, but it's all we have to go on right now. So why not just assume the Nationals are capable of flipping on the switch in the eighth inning every day and storming back to win games like they did today in topping the Cubs 7-4 before a stunned crowd of 40,102?
Only 48 hours removed from a come-from-behind victory on Opening Day, the Nationals followed nearly the exact same script. Trailing by two runs entering the top of the eighth and looking feeble at the plate again, they went on a rampage against Chicago relievers Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, putting eight consecutive men on base with two outs and bringing five of them home.
Key at-bats came from just about everybody in the lineup, but two in particular stood out: Espinosa's solo homer that ignited the rally, and Chad Tracy's two-run, pinch-hit single that put the Nationals ahead for good.
Start with Espinosa's opposite-field blast off Wood, which came on the 10th pitch of a brilliant plate appearance that saw the 24-year-old foul off six pitches (four of them with two strikes).
"He was throwing me a lot of pitches on the corners, and I was trying to foul them off," Espinosa said. "I thought he made some good pitches that I was able to foul off, and finally I got a good pitch that I could do something with."
Just as Ian Desmond's rally-starting single on Thursday got the Nationals bench perked up, Espinosa's homer set the tone for the rest of the lineup, which suddenly strode to the plate with confidence after flailing away at Cubs starter Matt Garza most of the afternoon.
"There's no question," said Adam LaRoche, who matched a career high with four hits. "It's so much more positive when guys are on base. It just keeps rolling. I don't know how to explain. It's just something in baseball. When guys are doing good, it rubs off on everybody else."
LaRoche's single two batters after Espinosa's homer knocked Wood out of the game to a chorus boos from the Cubs faithful and brought in Marmol, the Chicago closer who was now being asked by new manager Dale Sveum to record a four-out save in the season's second game.
As was the case Thursday when he gave up the winning run in the ninth, Marmol wasn't up to the task. He walked Jayson Werth on five pitches to load the bases and bring to the plate Tracy, the 31-year-old journeyman who spent last season in Japan and had little chance of making the Nationals' roster this spring until a spate of late injuries opened the door.
They'll have to pry Tracy from Davey Johnson's vice-lock grip now after he delivered his second clutch hit in as many games. Tracy's latest: a two-run single to right, putting the Nationals ahead 5-4.
"You know, you can't really draw it up like that, but it's been great," he said. "I've just tried to keep myself ready on the bench, and the opportunities will come."
It's not easy to gain the acceptance of a clubhouse full of players who have been together for a little while, especially when you come to camp on a minor-league deal and your locker is stationed dozens of yards from the lineup regulars.
Tracy, though, has slowly but surely won over his teammates with his professionalism, demeanor and -- most importantly -- production.
"I think when he came into camp, he'd be the first one to tell you that his chances weren't great," LaRoche said. "Whether they were 50-50, whatever they were, he had to earn everything he got on this club to make this team. I know it's still early, but I think he's a hitter. ... It's good to have him on the club. He's going to be a big part of this."
The way these Nationals are constructed, it certainly looks like some of their biggest contributors will come from their bench and their bullpen. The latter group was just as crucial to today's win as any unit on the roster.
After starter Gio Gonzalez labored through 3 2/3 ragged innings in his Nationals debut, Johnson was forced to turn to what he calls his "B" bullpen: The guys who typically will pitch when the club is trailing.
It may sound like an unglamorous role, but it was plenty important in this game, with Craig Stammen tossing 2 1/3 scoreless innings and Ryan Mattheus adding a 1-2-3 seventh to keep their teammates within striking distance.
"Everybody on the 25-man, everybody's got their own little role," Stammen said. "And every single role that they have is just as important as the other one. Some people might get more pub, and they might be put in tougher situations like [Tyler Clippard] and the closer and people like that. But when it's all said and done, you've got to get out there and get outs no matter when you're put in the game."
The yeoman's work by Stammen and Mattheus (who wound up being credited with the win) set the stage for Clippard and Henry Rodriguez to finish this one off once the Nationals had taken the lead. Those two right-handers continued the trend, and by day's end the Washington bullpen had combined to allow one hit and two walks over 5 1/3 scoreless innings.
"If it wasn't for the bullpen, it would've been an ugly day," Gonzalez said.
And if it wasn't for yet another eighth-inning rally, the Nationals wouldn't find themselves sitting atop the NL East with a 2-0 record.
Perhaps tomorrow they'll actually take an early lead and win a game in conventional fashion.
"No, I think we kind of like this," LaRoche said. "We perfected it at times last year. So just keep it going."
Who says you can't establish an identity in only two days?