The Good Fight

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A quick glance at the final box score may suggest that Washington enjoyed a rather comfortable victory in its rubber match triumph on Sunday. But the series finale in Pittsburgh began about as poorly as one could possibly draw it up for the Nationals. They went three up, three down in the top of the first, culminating in Bryce Harper’s check swing strikeout, after which he was ejected by third base umpire and crew chief John Hirschbeck.

The bottom of the first didn’t get any better. Starling Marte hit Gio Gonzalez’s first pitch over the wall, Jordy Mercer followed with a double, and Ryan Zimmerman’s throw to first on a grounder by Andrew McCutchen hit the runner in the back. After a walk to Gaby Sanchez, the bases were loaded with nobody out.

Gio Gonzalez averted disaster in the first on the way to six strong innings.

Gio Gonzalez averted disaster in the first on the way to six strong innings.

The afternoon could well have been over right there. But Gonzalez locked in and fanned Russell Martin swinging, then Michael McKenry looking. With two outs, Brandon Inge sent a grounder past Gonzalez up the middle, but a rangy play and a strong throw across his body by Ian Desmond beat the runner to first, and the Nationals escaped with just the single run of damage.

“It just felt like the momentum shifted,” said Gonzalez after his first-inning Houdini act. “A younger me would have probably spiraled out of control, trying to be too much, trying to do too much.”

Instead, the Nationals got that run back immediately, as Zimmerman drew a leadoff walk to start the second inning, moved to third on Adam LaRoche’s double and scored on Danny Espinosa’s sac fly deep to center field, knotting the game at 1-1. The game remained deadlocked until Espinosa’s next at-bat, when he got into a two-out, two-strike hanging curveball from Wandy Rodriguez and punished it deep into the left field seats for a two-run shot, putting Washington ahead for good.

“He didn’t really try to crush it, he just met it,” said Davey Johnson of Espinosa’s swing. “Of course, he’s so strong, it went a long way.”

In a sense, that approach has been emblematic of the Nationals in general this year, where they may have pressed too much out of the gates. They are such a strong team that simply meeting the challenges in front of them should yield positive results.

The Pirates clawed back within a run in the sixth, but again Gonzalez stranded a big runner, leaving Martin at third base as the potential tying run. The start – six innings of two-run ball with two walks and five strikeouts – was much more like the Gonzalez Nationals fans got to know last year, when he won 21 games.

“He was the old Gio,” said Johnson after the game. “I hadn’t seen that grin in a long time.”

Tyler Moore's late blast gave Washington some breathing room.

Tyler Moore’s late blast gave Washington some breathing room.

The contest remained a one-run game until late, when Washington got some fitting redemption for the first-inning antics. With one out and Roger Bernadina at second base, the Pirates elected to walk LaRoche to get to Tyler Moore, who had gone down looking three times in as many trips. Moore fell behind 1-2, then checked his swing at a pitch out of the zone, with the home side appealing down to first base umpire Jim Reynolds, who signaled no swing. Moore annihilated the next pitch to left field for a three-run bomb to put the game out of reach.

“It fires you up a little bit,” said Moore of the intentional walk ahead of him, before quickly couching his statement. “But you can’t blame them. I would have done the same thing. LaRoche was swinging a good bat and I was struggling early.”

There have been a number of games so far this season where an early miscue or unfortunate turn would alter the mood, portending a feeling of, “Here we go again.” Sunday’s contest in Pittsburgh provided the most amount of early trouble to overcome in any victory thus far in the young season. Those feelings crept up upon Harper’s ejection, grew stronger after Marte’s leadoff home run, and were at full boil with the bases loaded and no outs in the first.

But just as it turned around a road trip that saw the club lose the first two games at rival Atlanta, Washington rebounded Sunday to make it four wins in five days to close the trip, mostly low-scoring, tightly-played affairs that leaned on the good pitching and solid defensive foundation upon which this roster was constructed. If the final game of the trip does mark a turning point in the campaign, it may also well serve as a microcosm of the season as a whole. After struggling from the outset and encountering some adversity, cooler heads prevailed on the way to victory.

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