|Photo by USA Today|
In a 162 game baseball season it’s hard to qualify an early May series as a test, no matter the circumstances and no matter the teams involved. But for a team with World Series aspirations, sweeping the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers in a two-game series felt about as good as it possibly could for the Nationals.
Whether it is early May or late September, a deep lineup featuring Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder can be considered a measuring stick for any team.
“I think everyone was really excited for this series to begin within the clubhouse,” winning pitcher Dan Haren said. “It’s always fun playing a team of that caliber. You get fired up to see guys like Cabrera and Fielder and everyone in the clubhouse was excited for it.”
Haren earned his fourth win of the season in the 5-4 game after going six innings with four earned runs, nine hits, and a walk. He gave up three of the four runs in the sixth inning after cruising through his first 5 2/3 frames. The trio of late scores came off one swing of the bat, a three-run shot by a pinch-hitting Matt Tuiasosopo.
It was one mistake that blemished an otherwise crisp afternoon, despite the fact Haren did not feel his best.
“I really didn’t have much out there, I was kind of searching for it all game. I was able to wiggle myself through,” he said. “It’s just funny how it works, I held the one through four guys in check but the bottom of the lineup just killed me.”
For all that is made about the heart of the Tigers’ order, Haren had no trouble with batters one through four. Cabrera, Fielder, Austin Jackson, and Torii Hunter in fact went a combined 4-for-20 with no extra base hits and three strikeouts in the game. It was the back end of Detroit’s order that gave Haren problems, even pitcher Doug Fister who singled home a run off the Nats’ starter in the second inning.
Haren was fortunate to have help, though. The Nationals scored three runs in the first inning to take an early lead and give the veteran some breathing room while pitching in the rain against a tough lineup.
“When a guy doesn’t have his best stuff, if you’re pitching from behind that could be not a very good thing,” he said. “We were able to get a few off a really good pitcher in Fister today early and those runs held up.”
The Nats wasted no time against Fister in the first inning, starting with a leadoff double down the right field line by Denard Span. Roger Bernadina then joined him on base after bunting and beating the throw to first. Span came home for the first run on a Bryce Harper infield grounder ruled as a fielder’s choice.
Washington added two more in the inning off a pair of singles by Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond. LaRoche’s hit was not ruled an RBI as Jackson muffed the ball in center field.
LaRoche continued his recent success at the plate after a month of April in which he hit just .136. He is heating up and so is Zimmerman who recently returned from the disabled list. Both also had RBI singles in the second to give the Nats their fourth and fifth runs.
“I’ve liked the progress we’re making,” Davey Johnson said. “It was great today to see Zimm swinging the bat really good and Adam LaRoche continuing to swing the bat really good. That’s the big thing today, for me.”
The team’s four and five hitters are starting to come around, as well as their fourth starter who also had a forgettable April. With four straight wins, the Nationals are starting to feel like they did last year when they led the majors with 98 victories.
“I think everyone in this room will tell you that we didn't play great baseball at the beginning of the season,” Zimmerman said. “Defensively we were sloppy, offensively we were very inconsistent. Even the pitchers weren't that great at the beginning. But you're going to go through things like that in a season.”
“We've just got to keep doing what we've been doing lately.”
In earning the majors’ best record in 2012, the Nationals took care of teams regardless of their reputation. LaRoche thinks that in itself is progress.
“We did a great job last year of not worrying about who’s in town and not worrying about how big the series is or where the pennant race is,” he said.
“Just go out and play and good things happen. We did that the last couple days and over the last road trip.”
With five runs through the first two innings, the Nationals led much of the game before the Tigers rallied to make it close. After Tuiasosopo’s three-run shot in the sixth, the Tigers pulled within one run and later had the top of the order up in the ninth.
Nats closer Rafael Soriano earned his 12th save of the season, but only after allowing a single to Cabrera and a long fly ball to Fielder. Fielder got the third out on a long ball that Span caught just a few feet from the fence in left-center. But though many of the 28,742 in attendance thought the ball was headed out, Soriano and his teammates remained calm as it carried through the humid air.
“I tried to make a good pitch to him. Whatever happened, happen,” Soriano said. “I'm not going to be scared to pitch to him.”
“I’ve played here enough,” LaRoche said. “You kind of get a sense when someone gets a hold of one. I thought he just missed it. Obviously he can just miss some balls and hit them out of the ballpark. It’s pretty deep out that way. We’ll take it.”
LaRoche in many ways represents the Nationals’ turnaround. Though they were never really in complete despair, the first baseman seems to come and go with the team. When he was searching at the plate, the Nats’ lineup fell cold as well. And now that he’s hitting, things are falling into place for the entire club.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that first month we were all just kinda up in the air about what’s going on,” LaRoche said.
“We couldn’t pinpoint it. We had some struggling and we just weren’t putting anything together. But at no point did you see anybody panic and worry about where we’re going to be in three or four months. We knew it was a matter of time before this lineup and this staff gets going. And people are just starting to see that. I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet.”