With the lightning from passing storms flashing in the skies all around in the distance, the threat of dangerous weather at Nationals Park remained just that. But the bat of Rick Ankiel provided all the thunder inside the stadium, as he crushed two solo home runs to pace the surging Washington Nationals past Jair Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves, 5-3.
It was the Nats third straight win, raising their record to 52-56, putting them on a 78-win pace for the season, though they remain in last place in the division.
Ankiel, forced into the leadoff spot due to the Nationals shipping Roger Bernadina to the minors to create roster space for Chien-Ming Wang last Friday, went 2-for-4 to raise his average for the season to .242. Since returning from the disabled list July 1, Ankiel is hitting .338 with four home runs and ten RBIs in 63 plate appearances. He's gotten on base at a .396 clip.
Manager Davey Johnson credited Ankiel's recent success to getting a chance to play more often, and his offensive production is a boon to a team that is still ranked at or near the bottom in most offensive categories.
"Ever since he's come back from the disabled list he's swung the bat really good," Johnson said from the winning clubhouse. "He's giving me a little bit more than what you would expect from a leadoff hitter. It's nice."
Johnson joked that he doesn't expect Ankiel to "hit forty homers and steal forty bases" like Bobby Bonds famously did hitting leadoff for several teams in the 1970's, but he doesn't mind the power Ankiel's generating right now from the top of the order.
"I don't have a problem with a guy that can drive in runs hitting leadoff," said Johnson, who employed Brady Anderson in that role for the 1996 Baltimore Orioles, the year Anderson hit 50 home runs, 35 of which came in the leadoff spot. "Typical guys have a high on base percentage but I don't have a problem bunting a guy over [with the pitcher's spot] for somebody that can go deep."
The other story last night was the performance of Livan Hernandez. He rebounded from a couple of tough outings to turn in a very strong performance, going six innings and allowing just one run, the first of two Dan Uggla home runs on the evening. Hernandez was economical with his pitches, needing just 81 to get through six innings, and he was in command, throwing 55 of his pitches for strikes. He did not walk a batter, gave up just six hits and struck out three.
Johnson lauded his veteran hurler. "He was outstanding. I love to watch him pitch and he seemed to get stronger as the game went on." Asked what the change was last night in comparison to recent outings when he couldn't get past the fourth inning, Johnson replied, "He was going after hitters more -- he wasn't pitching around hitters and he had good command. It was vintage Livo." He even drove in a run in the second inning, pushing a single to right field that plated Jayson Werth with two outs.
So the Nats have kind of turned things around a little bit. After losing six in a row, they've reeled off three straight wins, all against division opponents. The playoffs might be out of reach, but once again they're within shouting distance of .500, just four games back of that elusive mark.
They have two more games at home with the Braves, a team on pace to win 93 games, before going out on a 10-game, 11-day road trip through Colorado, Chicago and Philadelphia. That trip would be daunting any time of year, much less during the dog days of August. It will be yet another interesting test for a team trying to find it's personality.
THE GOOD: Subbing for Tyler Clippard, who was unavailable last night, Ryan Mattheus pitched a scoreless eighth inning with a strikeout. He turned the lead over to Drew Storen, who picked up his 27th save of the season, despite allowing Uggla's second home run of the game.
THE BAD: Storen. Working his third game in as many days, he gave up a home run for a second consecutive game. Todd Coffey also allowed a solo home run in one inning pitched.
THE UGLY: Danny Espinosa. He went 0-for-4, lowering his batting average to .226. In fact, Espinosa has now gone 4-of-51 (.078) in his last 13 games and 9-for-73 (.123) in his last 19 games -- all with just two extra base hits and three runs driven in. He struck out an astounding 34 times in 26 games in July.
THE STATS: Eight hits, two walks, five strikeouts. 2-for-9 with RISP, five LOB, zero GIDP, three DPs. E: Espinosa (9).
NEXT GAME: Tuesday against the Braves at 7:05 pm. John Lannan (7-7, 3.63) faces Derek Lowe (6-9, 4.52).
NATS NOTES: After the game, the Nats returned LHP Athualpa Severino to AAA-Syracuse and are expected to recall RHP Collin Balester to serve as a long-man in the Nats pen. Severino has now been on the active MLB roster twice in his career -- and is still yet to throw his first big league pitch.