|Danny Espinosa celebrates walk-off three-run homer. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)|
A week ago, after the Washington Nationals lost to the San Diego Padres 7-3 to fall to 27-36, the Nats were on a pace to win 69 games.
Man, what a difference a week makes.
Despite normally-reliable relievers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen giving up single runs apiece in the eighth and ninth innings to force extra innings, the Nationals walked-off with a 7-4 win over the reeling St. Louis Cardinals after Danny Espinosa deposited his 12th home run of the season into the Nats bullpen in the bottom of the 10th inning.
Ryan Zimmerman got the rally started with a single up the middle, and after Laynce Nix struck out swinging, reliever Fernando Salas hit Michael Morse with his next pitch. Espinosa worked the count to two balls and one strike, and Salas laid one in to Espinosa, who made no doubt about it. It capped a three-hit night for the rookie second baseman, and the homer was his eighth hitting left-handed this season.
The Nationals have now won six games in a row since dropping the first game of the four-game set with San Diego, raising their record to 33-36, a 77-win pace. What's more, they finish the night in fourth place in the N.L. East as the Florida Marlins continue to spiral out of control, and are a mere 5 1/2 games out in the National League Wildcard race.
It's the first time Washington has won six in a row since they closed the season in 2009 with seven consecutive victories.
The Nats took a 4-2 lead into the late innings and turned things over, as they have in many wins this season, to Clippard and Storen. But both gave up solo home runs -- Clippard to Albert Pujols and Storen to Yadier Molina -- to blow the lead and reduce John Lannan to a no-decision.
Lannan was excellent once again. He induced 14 ground ball outs and was the beneficiary of two double plays. Lannan went seven innings, allowing two earned runs -- including Matt Holliday's seventh of the season in his first game back off the D.L. -- on six hits and two walks, striking out two.
Manager Jim Riggleman called on Sean Burnett to pitch the tenth, with Todd Coffey warming behind him. Burnett got lefty Colby Rasmus on a grounder to second, and Riggleman decided to leave the lefty in to face Pujols, Holliday and Lance Berkman. Burnett got Pujols to pop up to right field for the second out, walked Holliday, and struck out Berkman looking to end the frame.
Last Thursday, the Nats were 3-5 on their 11-game road trip and staring at three more game in San Diego's Petco Park, a place where hitters go to die. They won those three games by a combined score of 6-2, and after their best player re-joined the team on Tuesday, the offense has been popping and they swept the best hitting team in baseball.
Yup, it's been a remarkable winning streak. Folks have gone from talking about another last-place finish to making a run at the wild card. It's a long season, and we're not even at the All-Star break yet. But it's fun to entertain the notion, even for just a little bit.
A week can make a lot of difference.
THE GOOD: Espinosa. He's had five hits the last two games, and balls are starting to fall in for him a little bit. He has 12 homers and 41 RBIs this season and with his stellar defense, has to start earning some consideration for rookie of the year.
THE BAD: Clippard and Storen. Hard to fault these two guys, they've been doing their job all season long. I guess when your set-up and closer fail, it's best they fail in a game you come back and end up winning.
THE UGLY: Matt Stairs. Grounded to first in his only at bat,. Hitting .122 (5-for-40) this season.
THE STATS: 10 hits, two walks, six strikeouts. 2-for-6 with RISP, seven LOB, zero GIDP. E: Espinosa (5)
NEXT GAME: Friday at 7:05 against the Baltimore Orioles at Nats Park. Jason Marquis (7-2, 3.67) faces Zach Britton (6-4, 3.18).
NATS NOTES: 1B Adam LaRoche had successful surgery earlier in the day. It was reported the doctors found and repaired a SLAP tear, a sizable tear of the labrum inside his left shoulder. The Nationals maintain that LaRoche will be ready for spring training. Several Nationals players have undergone the same procedure, including Cristian Guzman and Jesus Flores.
The Nationals franchise-best errorless streak came to an end. Espinosa drew Michael Morse off first base trying to make a play on a slow roller. The streak stopped at 13-plus games and 131 1/3 innings.
Jayson Werth and Roger Bernadina led off the game with back-to-back homers off Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse. It's the first time two players started the game with back-to-back homers since Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro did it for the Expos in June 2002.