|Photo by USA Today|
Losers of four straight with a searching offense and erratic pitching, the Nationals’ 8-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday night was perhaps the perfect medicine for a team in an unexpected position as they near the end of the season’s first month. Their bats woke up, they got the breaks their opponents had been getting, and their starting pitcher was buzzing right from the first pitch. Finally, things were going the Nationals way.
Whether it was offense, pitching, or defense in the field: everything seemed to work out for the home team.
“That was a big day,” manager Davey Johnson said. “A lot of guys were saying to me, ‘It’s been a long time since we were shaking hands.’ I said no doubt about that.”
“It was just a good all-around game. That’s more like who we are: Good pitching, timely hitting.”
The Nationals broke out of their worst offensive slump of the season – four runs total in their previous four games – early with two scores in the second inning. Danny Espinosa, whose 26th birthday it happened to be, started things off with an RBI double to score Ian Desmond. He hit a long fly ball to right-center field that fell just beyond the reach of a sprinting Shin-Soo Choo.
Espinosa hit a ball to nearly the exact same spot in the team’s loss on Wednesday that was reeled in, but this one dropped and bounced off the wall.
“I said it was cause it was my birthday that it fell today,” Espinosa said. “It was nice to see it fall in. I know Choo can get after it out there. He can run balls down pretty well. So when I saw it fall in it was a big sigh of relief.”
Espinosa was then batted in by Denard Span with two outs who hit a slow chopper to shortstop Zack Cozart. Span beat the throw to first by a half-a-step, another close break for the Nats.
In the third inning the Nats would make their own luck. Bryce Harper led off with a towering home run to the lawn in dead center field, his eighth of the season. Jayson Werth then got on with a single and was moved to third because of a throwing error by Joey Votto that let Adam LaRoche reach second. A fielder’s choice on a groundout by Ian Desmond sent home Werth to bring Espinosa back to the plate. The Nats’ second baseman then blasted a 2-2 sinker from Bronson Arroyo into the team’s bullpen in right field to put Washington up 6-0.
Three RBI on two extra base hits later and Espinosa was having a pretty good birthday. He was finally having fun and so were his teammates.
“It takes something like this to get a team going sometimes,” he said. “Hitting's contagious, everybody knows that. You get a couple guys hot and everybody starts getting on base and it's kind of easier. You've got more holes to hit with and things start going the team's way and things start rolling.”
The six-run lead was plenty enough for starter Gio Gonzalez who, if it weren’t for the team’s recent offensive woes, would have been the story of the game. He put in his best start of the season allowing only one hit and two walks with seven strikeouts, redeeming himself after giving up 12 earned runs in his previous nine innings across two starts.
“I felt like I was more on top of the ball, again my team gave me confidence to go out there and pound the strike zone,” he said.
“I was trying to make the adjustment to stop being so perfect, to just going out there and throw strikes.”
Gonzalez threw 112 pitches in eight innings with 78 of them strikes. He was particularly effective early in counts with 20 first strikes on the 27 hitters he faced.
Gonzalez’ one miscue was against Votto in the fourth inning. Having retired the Reds’ first 11 batters, Gonzalez threw a 2-1 fastball that the former MVP took opposite field for a solo home run. It cleared the fence by just a few inches, but served as the only Reds’ hit of the evening.
It was one hit and may have prevented the shutout, but overall Gonzalez was on his game and back to the form that helped him lead the majors in wins in 2012.
“Today was just get the ball and go,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “He was rocking fire. That’s what Gio needs to do. That’s what Gio does. And when he does that, he’s successful most times out of not because his stuff is that good.”
Gonzalez’ 112 pitches were a season-high and just at Johnson’s threshold for the lefty. The manager said he would have let him go one more inning and finish the game if it weren’t for his previous two bad starts.
The Nats got two more runs across in the bottom of the eighth on a triple by Span. He scored Suzuki who had walked and Roger Bernadina who dropped his first hit of the season as Gonzalez’ pinch-hitter.
Eight runs total and a game that was essentially over in the third inning gave the Nats a feeling they hadn’t felt in days and hope that maybe their recent struggles, particularly at the plate, have been solved. There were high fives and smiles, and music in the locker room, the type of dugout and clubhouse the Nats have become used to over the past year.
“It's a different atmosphere when you win,” Espinosa said. “It's a totally different atmosphere.”
“It was huge,” Suzuki said. “No mystery last couple series, last couple games, especially the last six home games before this was tough. I think everybody was getting frustrated a little bit. You try to stay positive. We needed a game like this, to come out and click on all cylinders. Everybody was having fun, laughing in the dugout again. It was like back to normal.”