Results tagged ‘ Roger Bernadina ’

The Case for Catch of the Year

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The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros opened their second and final series of the season with a pair of extra-inning games Monday and Tuesday night, and a pair of Nationals wins. But despite the apparent similarities, the defining plays of these two contests could not have been more different. We have already chronicled Houston’s defensive lapse from the 11th inning on Monday night that led to the game-winning run. However, to fairly and accurately chronicle the importance of Roger Bernadina’s jaw-dropping, game-saving catch for the final out of Tuesday night’s contest, we must look at it in the larger context – as a frontrunner for catch of the year in Major League Baseball.

Humor us, if you will. Watch the video below, no matter how many times you’ve already seen it, just so the play is fresh in your mind. Then, as we take you through our five reasons, we encourage you to read through each point individually, then watch the video again. By the end, you can tell us if you also believe that what the Shark reeled in last night was more impressive than any other catch made this season, including Mike Trout’s now legendary leap (video also below, for comparison).

Catch of the Year…Roger Bernadina

Or Mike Trout

1. The Amount of Ground Covered

Well positioned before the pitch, just to the left side of second base, Bernadina nevertheless had to run full tilt deep into the left-center field gap and leap, arms extended into the awkwardly shaped façade in front of the Nationals bullpen. But it’s not like he had time to set himself underneath the ball and try to time his leap – it was all on the run.

2. The Ballpark

Minute Maid Park is…unique. From the notoriously easy-to-reach Crawford Boxes in left field to Tal’s Hill in center field that rises behind the warning track and includes a foul pole in play, it is easy to forget the minefield that awaits outfielders in left-center. As you can see in the photo to the right, the angle of the wall changes every few feet, often causing awkward caroms and general confusion for visiting players trying to decide how to pursue fly balls in the area. Bernadina disregarded all of that, threw caution to the wind, and literally threw himself into one of the recesses of the wall, emerging with the ball.

3. The Game Situation

This cannot be overstated. After Washington had finally broken through in the top of the 12th with the first run scored by either team since the second inning, the Astros had the tying run at second and the winning run at first with two outs in the bottom of the frame. If Bernadina does not come up with that ball, the Astros not only tie it, they likely win the game on that play, with the runner on the move in the two-out situation. It’s that simple – the catch was literally the difference between a win and a loss. When is the last time you’ve seen that in a game?

4. Steve Pearce/Craig Stammen

You can tell the significance of any play in the game as much as anything by the reaction of the other players on the field. Steve Pearce was the runner at second on the final play Tuesday night, representing the tying run. Check him out on the replay (0:57), fist raised in triumph as he heads towards third base, confident he is watching a game-ending play of an entirely different nature.

Meanwhile, Craig Stammen stood in the Nationals bullpen, just on the other side of the chain link fence from where Bernadina came crashing into the cutout. After the Shark came away with the ball, watch Stammen (at 0:11 and again at 1:03) jumping around, fists raised like a kid in the stands. Sure, Tyler Clippard’s primal scream and Jayson Werth’s bear hug speak volumes as well, but nothing matches Stammen’s unbridled joy from the ‘pen.

5. The Pennant Race

Oh yeah, the pennant race. As hot as the Nationals have been since the All-Star break, winning 14 of their last 18 games (including last night), the Atlanta Braves have kept pace. Washington held a four-game lead at the break, a mark that had not been matched until they were stymied by Cole Hamels and, some time later, Brett Wallace’s walk-off bid came to rest in Bernadina’s mitt. For the second time in four days, the Nationals have added to their division lead, and once again own the best record in baseball at 67-43. None of these things would be true if not for Bernadina’s catch.

Still want more on the Shark’s heroics? The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg also did a great job of capturing some of the initial reactions – on the field, in the clubhouse and around the Twitter-sphere.

A Win Is A Win

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It seems that with each and every passing week of this 2012 season, the Washington Nationals are finding increasingly more dramatic and creative ways to win baseball games. There have been late-inning rallies, beginning on the season’s first two days at Wrigley Field. There have been walk-off wins of nearly every variety, from wild pitches (twice), to sacrifice flies, to heart-stopping, come-from-behind home runs. There have been victories of nearly every shade, coming in just about any way the mind can dream up. And then there was Monday night.

Overlooked in last night’s madness was another solid performance from Craig Stammen.

After carving out a 4-1 lead, the Nationals found themselves in extra innings against an Astros team that had won just four its last 34 games. Fortunately for Washington, that Houston squad had yet to win any of its nine extra-inning contests, and the Nats – no stranger to free baseball – were not about to become their first victim. But for all of the timely, clutch hits the team has put together lately and, really, all season long, this game turned on something entirely different.

We will make our best attempt to describe the play on paper, though it deserves to be seen, if you haven’t already watched it. After Roger Bernadina pulled a single through the hole between first and second base to open the top of the 11th, new Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki bluffed at a bunt and took strike one. He squared again on the next pitch, popping the ball in the air in front of first base. Steve Pearce crashed from first, but the ball dropped in front of him, just as pitcher Wilton Lopez closed in to try to make a play of his own. Then, Pearce and Lopez literally crashed – into one another – with the ball glancing off the first baseman. Matt Downs came running in from third just as Pearce made a desperate effort to collect the ball and throw out Suzuki. Downs pulled up at the last second, flailing over Pearce as he dropped his elbow, the throw towards first instead sailing into foul ground and up the right field line.

Meanwhile, Bernadina raced from second to third, where Bo Porter held his hands up to stop the speedy outfielder, a prudent decision with none out in the inning. But the Shark had other plans. He blew right past Porter for the plate, and right fielder Brian Bogesevic’s throw, which seemed destined to make a close play at the plate, airmailed the catcher and went to the screen. When the dust settled, Bernadina had scored and Suzuki stood at third base.

The run would be all the Nationals would need to end a game they no doubt feel they should have won in much less time than the four hours and 15 minutes it took to complete.

Surely, they won’t be happy about the events that led up to the 11th inning on Monday, or that forced extra innings in the first place. The relief corps, which has been one of the most solid in baseball this season, suddenly became allergic to their own fastballs, falling behind hitters with off-speed pitches. After loading the bases in the eighth, Drew Storen escaped with the lead. When Tyler Clippard walked and hit a batter in the ninth, he did not. However, after allowing a game-tying double that left the winning run at third base with just one out, Clippard buckled down to strike out the next two batters, pushing the game to extra innings.

There was another bright spot from the relief corps’ performance, thanks to Craig Stammen. The same hurler who came up with 2.1 innings of clutch relief eight days prior in the Nationals maniacal, 11-10, multi-comeback game in Milwaukee, delivered again with 2.0 innings of hitless relief. No reliever in baseball has pitched at least two frames as often as Stammen, who did so for the 21st time on Monday. And so while the focus will remain, undoubtedly, on “what turned into a three-ring circus,” as Nationals radio man Charlie Slowes put it, the ultimate takeaway from Monday night is this: some way, some how, the Nationals just keep finding ways to win.

A “Never Say Die” Weekend

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The Washington Nationals have made a name for themselves in the 2012 season by winning two different types of games. The first and more common type involves a healthy serving of solid starting pitching, a clutch piece of offense or two to snare the lead, and a lockdown performance by an ensemble bullpen. It is the kind of affair that the Nationals have found themselves involved in ever since their 2-1, Opening Day victory at Wrigley Field. But then there is that other kind of game, the nail-biting, nerve-fraying, mind-boggling variety that has made this season truly memorable.

This weekend’s matchups in Milwaukee provided one game from each mold. After splitting the first two of the four-game set with the Brewers, the Nationals sent hometown hero Jordan Zimmermann, originally from nearby Auburndale, Wisconsin, to make his first-ever start against the team he grew up supporting. The emerging ace delivered a sterling performance, allowing a single run on five hits, fanning six Milwaukee batters over six strong innings to extend his streak of throwing at least that many frames to 21 consecutive starts. In so doing, he lowered his ERA to the third-best mark in the National League at 2.28 and matched his career high with his eighth victory. He also improved to 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA in the month of July, during which he allowed just four earned runs and four walks while fanning 31 in 37.0 innings pitched.

Jordan Zimmermann finished off a spectacular month of July in his home state.

Meanwhile, the Nationals rookies came through with huge contributions again, as Corey Brown opened the scoring with a solo shot and Tyler Moore added a two-run bomb to provide more than enough cushion in a 4-1 final. In all, it was a solid, shutdown performance that both the team and the coaching staff could be proud of.

Then, there was Sunday’s game.

In a battle of 2004 first-round picks, it was the less-heralded Mark Rogers who seemed poised to best All-Star Gio Gonzalez, as Milwaukee had forged a 3-1 lead through five fairly normal innings. Right about then, all convention went out the window. The Nationals led off the sixth with back-to-back doubles from Ryan Zimmerman and Moore, cutting the lead to one and putting the tying run in scoring position with nobody out. But they failed to plate that tying run, and Milwaukee responded by scoring twice in the bottom of the frame to push the lead to 5-2.

In the seventh, Washington looked poised to strike again, using singles from Brown and Steve Lombardozzi followed by a walk from Bryce Harper (all rookies!) to load the bases for Zimmerman, again with none out. But Cody Ransom turned a slick 5-3 double-play, limiting the Nats to just a single run once more. And again, the Brewers came right back for two more runs in the bottom of the frame, sitting pretty with a 7-3 advantage though seven frames.

This is, as they say, about the time when things got really interesting. With one out and a runner on first, Roger Bernadina flipped an opposite field home run into the bullpen in left-center field to cut the margin in half. Jesus Flores followed with a single, Brown with a double, and Lombardozzi with an RBI-groundout to cut the margin to one and put the tying run at third with two outs. One wild pitch later, and it was suddenly tied at 7-7. But the Brewers were not about to go quietly. With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez blasted back-to-back shots, reclaiming a two-run lead.

For the fourth straight inning, the Nationals were looking uphill at a discouraging scoreline. And for the fourth straight inning, they mustered a rally. Mark DeRosa drew a one-out walk, bringing Michael Morse (featured in this homestand’s Inside Pitch… Pick one up at the ballpark!) to the plate as the potential game-tying run. After Milwaukee reliever John Axford forged ahead in the count, 1-2, his catcher set up low and inside for a fastball, anything to keep Morse from getting his arms extended. Axford missed his spot, leaving his pitch up and over the middle of the plate. Morse did not miss, sending the ball on a line over the right field wall, and once again, the game was tied.

Michael Morse unleashed Beast Mode twice – in the ninth inning to tie the game, and in the 11th to win it.

Craig Stammen kept Milwaukee off the board in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, and neither team scored in the 10th inning. In the top of the 11th, Harper walked and Zimmerman singled, bringing Morse to bat with a chance to summon Beast Mode one more time. He delivered once again, pulling a double just inside the third-base bag to score both runners. Tyler Clippard would allow a solo shot to Corey Hart in the bottom of the frame, but shut the door in time to lock down the victory, with Morse himself gloving the final out on a foul pop in front of the Brewers dugout.

The games of this second variety, of the seemingly impossible string of back-and-forth momentum swings, of comebacks from the proverbial dead, seem to keep reaching more and more epic levels of absurdity at every pass. Sunday’s contest lacked only the walk-off hit, as it took place away from Nationals Park, but may have once again set the bar as the most dramatic of them all so far.

Perhaps most importantly, it capped a 6-1 road trip that kept the Nationals a full four games ahead of division rival Atlanta as the weekend came to a close. It also left them at 61-40, the first time the franchise has been this many games over .500 since its relocation to the Nation’s Capital. The Nats get a well-deserved off day on Monday, their only such breather in a 35-day stretch that sees them play 36 games, including seven more in a six-day stretch at home beginning on Tuesday. A word to the wise: take advantage of the day off yourself. You’re going to need every ounce of energy you’ve got left for the final 61 games of the regular season.

In the meantime, enjoy Morse’s theatrics one more time (as even Davey lets himself loose at the 1:04 mark) and both Bob Carpenter’s and Charlie Slowes’ calls of the action.

It’s The Little Things That Kill

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Sports are full of “firsts” and “lasts,” the types of facts and figures that allow us to place events in appropriate historical context. One of the most noted of these facts in baseball is that the Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. What’s often forgotten is that the Cubs have also not won a pennant since 1945, a stretch of 67 years.

In that spirit, let’s go ahead and get the historical facts surrounding where the Washington Nationals stand today out of the way. The club will enter play this 27th of July, 2012 with a 59-39 record, matching the New York Yankees for the best record in the game. This marks the first time the Nationals have stood 20 games above the break-even point since their return to Washington in 2005. It is also the first time a Washington-based Major League Baseball team has been in such a position since the 1945 Senators finished their campaign at 87-67, the same year as that last Cubs pennant.

Steve Lombardozzi is now 4-for-5 with a double, triple and 8 RBI with the bases loaded in his young career.

In fact, at 59 wins the Nationals have already matched their season total from both 2008 and 2009, with 64 games still left to play.

And while all that is notable, games are still won day-to-day, moment-to-moment. It is the little things that continue to have a big impact for the Nationals. Take Thursday night’s game against the Brewers, for example. There was one very loud moment, which you probably remember, and a much quieter one that you may have missed, which turned the game.

The Nationals scored their first run on an Adam LaRoche solo shot, his third home run in as many games, coming on Yovani Gallardo’s first pitch of the second inning. That feat alone was impressive enough, but the fact that it came in lock step with MASN’s highlight package made it even more incredible. F.P. Santangelo had just finished detailing LaRoche’s previous blast as he stepped to the plate, describing the opposing pitcher’s location mistake as a “fastball right down the middle for a home run…” and crack. The ball sailed over the right-center field wall, LaRoche trotted around the bases, and Santangelo continued. “You are looking live, this is not the highlight package that we just showed.”

But it was when Roger Bernadina drew a two-out walk that the Nationals sprung at the opportunity to do some real damage. With the runner at first, the Milwaukee defense played batter Jesus Flores to pull the ball, moving the shortstop into the hole, and pulling the second baseman farther up the middle, assuming coverage of the base on a possible steal. Davey Johnson put on the hit-and-run, drawing the second baseman to the bag and opening up the right side of the infield for Flores, who swatted what would normally be a routine ground ball through the vacated infield dirt, Bernadina racing around to third on the single.

Following the play, Bob Carpenter and Santangelo remarked that Flores had already done his job in the inning. No matter the result, by reaching, Flores had gotten the pitcher to the plate, meaning that at the very least, leadoff man Steve Lombardozzi would lead off the third inning. But Gallardo was flustered by the turn of events, falling behind fellow pitcher Edwin Jackson at the plate 3-0 before walking him to load the bases. Lombardozzi then yanked a clutch, two-out triple inside of first base and down into the right-field corner, and the Brewers never responded.

Edwin Jackson continued to impress, both on the mound and on the basepaths.

Meanwhile, LaRoche’s bizarre kinship with his former teammate Jackson – with whom he also played in Arizona – continued, as he hit the seventh of his team-leading 19 home runs in a game that Jackson started. And Jackson continued the trend of superb starting pitching of late. In the last turn of the rotation, Nationals starters have allowed just three runs in 34.0 innings pitched, good for a 0.79 ERA.

For their troubles, the Brewers get lefty Ross Detwiler tonight, who is 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA this month. On Saturday, they will face Jordan Zimmermann, who will make his homecoming start in his native state of Wisconsin and currently sits at an otherworldly 3-0, 0.87 through his first four starts in July.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are looking at uncharted waters, a chance to not only push more than 20 games above .500 for the first time ever, but also to notch their seventh straight Curly W, which would mark the longest winning streak of the season. The Nationals have not won that many consecutive games since taking eight straight from June 10-18 of last year.

All of that talk can wait, though. For now the Nats will focus on getting one more baserunner on offense, one more out on defense, doing what they have done all year long. The best part? You can watch it all again tonight.

What to Watch for: 7/26

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Washington Nationals (58-39) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (44-53)

RHP Edwin Jackson (5-6, 3.73) vs. RHP Yovani Gallardo (8-7, 3.72)

The Nationals are coming off a three-game road sweep of the Mets and carry a five-game winning streak into tonight’s series opener in Milwaukee. Edwin Jackson takes on Yovani Gallardo in a battle of righties who have posted very similar results to date. Jackson and Gallardo have nearly identical ERAs, records and K/BB rates (2.52/2.44) so far this season.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Harper RF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Espinosa SS

7. Bernadina CF

8. Flores C

9. Jackson RHP

THE STAKES AT HAND

If the Nationals win tonight’s series opener at Miller Park, they will match their longest winning streak of the season at six games (also: June 8-13) and move 20 games above .500. The last time a Washington-based Major League team was 20 or more games above the break-even mark was at the completion of the 1933 season, when the AL Nationals finished 99-53 en route to the World Series, which they would drop in five games to the New York Giants.

JACKSON VS. GALLARDO

Jackson is 2-2 with a 4.22 ERA in five career starts against Milwaukee, with three of those starts coming in August of 2011 (1-1, 4.95). In his last outing on Saturday vs. Atlanta, Jackson went 7.0 innings, allowing one run on five hits with two walks and struck out a season-high nine batters. His counterpart tonight, Gallardo, has notched wins in both of his two career starts against the Nationals at Miller Park.

SHARK WEEK

Roger Bernadina has hit safely in six straight games, including four multi-hit efforts along the way. During the streak, he is 12-for-23 (.522) with three RBI, two runs scored and two stolen bases. Dating to June 28, Bernadina is 20-for-43 (.465) with four RBI, five walks, six stolen bags and five runs scored, raising his OBP from .314 to .370 over that span.

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All Is Good And Nothingness Is Dead

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In 2002, the Oakland Athletics played one of the most gut-wrenching games in recent memory. Sitting on the brink of history, having won 19 contests in a row, they were just one triumph shy of setting a new American League record for consecutive victories. After taking the first two in a series from Kansas City, they needed only to close them out for a three-game home sweep to accomplish the feat. With one of their aces – Tim Hudson – on the mound, their chances seemed promising.

Through three innings, it was all unfolding according to plan with the A’s building an 11-0 lead. But then, a funny thing started to happen. The hapless Royals started to claw back. They got five runs in the fourth – normally quite a feat, but it was less than half the deficit they had dug themselves, so the party continued, undisturbed. The margin remained at 11-5 all the way to the eighth when, suddenly, they scored twice more, and had two more runners on for their superstar, Mike Sweeney. The A’s went to their best setup man, Jeff Tam. Sweeney drilled a towering, three-run shot into the left-field seats, and suddenly it was 11-10.

The A’s celebrated after surviving disaster, but might they have been better off with a loss? (AP)

Celebrations were over, replaced by a nervous murmur. The A’s failed to score in the eighth, and amazingly, Kansas City pushed across a run in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 11.

That’s the thing about baseball – there is no clock to run out. You can’t simply “manage the game,” the way you can with a 30-point lead in basketball or football. You have to earn every last painful, desperate, gut-wrenching out. And, sometimes, you forget how to do that.

Of course, those who have seen Moneyball already know how this story ends. Scott Hatteberg, pinch-hitting with one out in the bottom of the ninth, took ball one, then turned on the next pitch, sending it soaring deep into the California night and the history books.

It’s hard to say what the Athletics learned that day, as they got away with their mistakes. Their collapse, as stunning as it was, did not ruin their historical moment. But, as the movie fails to show, they did not carry any of their momentum with them. The team traveled to Minnesota the next day, where they would be shut out, ending the streak. That same Minnesota team would end up celebrating a Game 5 elimination victory back in Oakland just a month later, dispatching the A’s from the postseason.

Could one make the argument that the A’s would have learned more from such a loss, than from the historic victory?

The Nationals did not get away with their mistakes last Friday night. In the opener of a crucial intradivision series, what started out like a dream turned into a nightmare, as Atlanta fought its way back from an early 9-0 deficit to earn an 11-10 win in 11 innings. Not even Danny Espinosa’s game-tying, ninth-inning home run – after Washington had fallen behind 10-9 – was enough to bail them out. The Braves kept coming, and for one night, all seemed lost.

Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina helped get the Nationals back on track.

The Braves momentum carried into the first half of Saturday’s doubleheader, where the Nats were shut out for just the second time all season, and the first time at home. A steady mist descended upon Nationals Park all day long, and into the night cap. It was a scene more befitting of Washington State than D.C., the dense clouds and light rain swarming the combined crowd of nearly 70,000 spectators all day and for much of the evening. In fact, the rain had been falling since the sixth inning of Friday night’s affair, right when the game had begun to turn on the Nats.

The offensive drought continued through the first four frames of Game 2. But then, a funning thing happened – the sky, both literally and figuratively, stopped falling. After 13 innings of stunned, scoreless ball, the Nationals went back to work, trailing just 2-0, thanks to arguably the biggest pitching performance of the season from perhaps its most unlikely hero: John Lannan. Summoned from Triple-A under the new rule that allows for an extra man to be added to the roster specifically for doubleheaders, Lannan pitched with the knowledge that he would likely be sent back to the minors following the game, regardless of the outcome. And after a shaky first that saw him escape with just two runs of damage, he was nearly unhittable the rest of the night.

That left Washington within striking distance in the bottom of the fifth, and strike the Nationals did, bit by bit. They pushed across a single run to finally get in the scoring column, but missed the chance for more. In the sixth, they did so again, tying the game, but failing to seize the lead. So they just kept coming. Roger Bernadina, filling in for Bryce Harper after he left the first game with a bruised ankle, drove home the go-ahead run with two outs in the seventh. In the eighth, Harper came back. He laced a pinch-single, stole second (!) and scored on Espinosa’s single, adding a crucial insurance run. Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard, who had both been out of sorts the night before, combined to slam the door shut as they have done much of the past two months.

Few hitters have been as hot as Ryan Zimmerman over the past month.

After all the doom and gloom following Friday night’s affair, what happened in the 36 hours to follow? The Nats took two of three from their closest division rival, including both a nail-biting, come-from-behind victory and an emphatic, 9-2 rout in which the home side banished any lingering effects from Friday night’s letdown.

That’s the thing about adversity – it can crush your spirits, take you out of your element, and turn the tide of a pennant race. Or, it can bring out the best in your character and – by showing that you won’t succumb to the pressure, but rather will rally back stronger than ever – be an even bigger blow to your opponents. The Nationals will have to prove themselves six more times against the Braves before the regular season concludes, but after last weekend, they walked away from their biggest setback no worse for wear, maintaining the same 3.5-game cushion with which they entered the series.

Then they went to New York, winning a crazy, extra-inning affair by scoring six runs in the 10th inning on Monday night, and finally triumphing over Mets ace R.A. Dickey on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they completed the three-game sweep with a 5-2 win, their fifth straight. Their NL East lead sits at 4.5 games over the Braves, and more than 10 against everyone else in the division.

Time will tell if this was that moment for the Nationals, and if the offense will continue to batter the ball the way it did to open and close this weekend’s series. But one thing is for sure: what has not killed this Washington squad so far in 2012 has only made it stronger.

What to Watch for: 6/11

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Washington Nationals (35-23) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (31-29)

RHP Edwin Jackson (2-3, 3.11) vs. RHP Brandon Morrow (7-3, 2.90)

The Nationals move on to another Interleague series at Rogers Centre in Toronto to face the Blue Jays starting Monday night. Washington is looking to strengthen its lead in the NL East, but Toronto ace Brandon Morrow may prove as a major challenge in tonight’s series opener.

CANADIAN HOMECOMING

The Nationals return north of the border for just the fourth time since relocating from Montreal to Washington, D.C. prior to the 2005 season. This marks their first Canada trip since June 2007 when they dropped two of three to the Blue Jays, and where they are just 2-7 in Canada since making the move. Two Nationals coaches have Blue Jays ties as bench coach Randy Knorr played five seasons (‘91-’95) and won two World Series rings with the Jays and bullpen coach Jim Lett coached on Toronto’s staff from ‘97-’99.

EDWIN LOOKS TO CONTINUE THE WINNING WAYS

Edwin Jackson collected just his second win of the season in his last start (6/6 vs. NYM) despite seven quality starts in 11 outings so far in 2012. Tonight, he makes his 14th career start against the Blue Jays. He is 3-0 with a 4.43 ERA (20 ER/40.2 IP) in his last six starts against Toronto dating to July 30, 2008.

NL BROOMS MAKE RARE APPEARANCE AT FENWAY

With a weekend series sweep over the Red Sox, the Nationals became the first National League team to sweep a series at Fenway since the Atlanta Braves did so in June ’02. Roger Bernadina broke a 3-3 tie with a RBI-double in the ninth inning off Alfredo Aceves, scoring Bryce Harper from first base. Jordan Zimmermann posted seven innings of three-run ball, before turning it over to Tom Gorzelanny (win, 2-1) and Tyler Clippard (8th save).

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First Things First

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For all of the hype surrounding this weekend’s three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox on the road at Fenway Park, perhaps Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa summed it up best when reflecting upon the feat.

“I think we were the team to beat right here,” he explained. “We’re the first-place team.”

Indeed, they are. They were when the weekend began, and found their lead padded to two games when Atlanta finally saw its six-game win streak come to an end on Sunday. Nevertheless, the national media was paying more attention this weekend to all the things that Nationals fans have been watching since Opening Day, now more than two months in the rear-view mirror.

That’s the thing about playing at Fenway: wherever the Red Sox reside in the standings, everyone is watching. It is one of those venues that puts you under the magnifying glass of the entire country. Peter Gammons, the Hall-of-Fame writer who covered the Sox for decades before ascending to the National stage, was unapologetic in his gushing over the Nationals fan support, those who showed up to cheer the team on in a hostile environment. As The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell pointed out in his column this morning, The Boston Herald even called the Nats “The most exciting team in baseball.”

The last such moment of national attention for this team came during NATITUDE Weekend against Philadelphia in early May. While the Nationals won that encounter – taking two-of-three including a dramatic, extra-inning victory to open the set – they lost in the nationally televised finale, missing perhaps the opportunity to claim the attention that they demanded this weekend in Boston.

Sunday’s heroes Bryce Harper (right) and Roger Bernadina (middle) celebrate with Rick Ankiel. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Given the opportunity to close out the sweep once again, they did not disappoint. Following a dynamic team performance Friday and a solid effort on Saturday, the Nationals were in a battle in the finale. Bryce Harper, who was given his first day off since his call-up, found himself thrust into the middle of a tie game with one out in the ninth inning. He drew a five-pitch walk, then spent the bulk of the next two at-bats trying to size up Boston reliever Alfredo Aceves for the best time to steal. With a quick delivery to the plate, Aceves kept Harper on the bag until two outs and two strikes, when the rookie finally broke for second on the perfect pitch, a letter-high fastball that Roger Bernadina laced towards the right-field corner. With his momentum already at full blast (nearly overly so, as he struggled to keep his footing heading into second base), Harper tore around the 270 feet toward home, slapping the plate with the go-ahead run as he slid across well ahead of the relay throw back to the infield.

That allowed Tyler Clippard to come out of the ‘pen for the third straight day, and for the third straight day he shut the door on the Red Sox, silencing the Fenway crowd. His final masterpiece, a literally knee-buckling changeup to Dustin Pedroia, iced both the game and the cake of the weekend’s heroics. It marked the second road sweep in just over two weeks for this team, showing the continued growth that they have already experienced since that Phillies series just over a month ago.

Speaking of those Phillies, they now trail the front-running Nationals by eight games in the NL East, and by a staggering 10 games in the all-important loss column. So, yes, a three-game road sweep of a team with the history and tradition always makes for a great weekend. But with a much-less talked about three-game set against a less-heralded (yet quite talented) Toronto team beginning Monday night, it is where the Nationals sit as a result of that sweep that matters far more.

First place.

The Bucs Stopped Here

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In case you hadn’t heard, Stephen Strasburg is still Stephen Strasburg. The 23 year-old right-hander took on the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday night for the first time since his Major League debut back in 2010. Those who remember Strasburg’s first big league start – and really, how could you forget it? – recall his utter dominance, as he struck out 14 batters over 7.0 innings of work. Not everyone remembers just how that outing ended though. The righty fanned the last seven batters he faced, striking out the side in his final two frames.

Fast-forward to Thursday night. After allowing a leadoff single to Jose Tabata in the first, Strasburg got Alex Presley to ground into a 6-4-3 double play, then struck out Andrew McCutchen, who had been the Nationals albatross all series long, to end the inning. From there, he struck out all three batters he faced in the second inning. Ditto in the third. Just like that, he had done it again, tying his own franchise mark with seven consecutive strikeouts.

Strasburg has struck out 27 Pirates in 13 career innings against Pittsburgh.

Even more impressively though, was that it came against these same Pirates. Doing the quick math, if one goes back to his first start, Strasburg struck out 14 of 16 Pittsburgh batters he faced. Those are numbers reserved for Little League contests or video games, not Major League Baseball games.

Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche continued to crush the ball through the chorus of boos that greeted him at every plate appearance in his former home. For the second time in the series, he used the longball to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Any short-list of early candidates for National League Comeback Player of the Year must include LaRoche, who leads the team in batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.421), slugging (.582), home runs (6) and RBI (21). To put that in perspective, LaRoche owns a higher batting average, slugging percentage and more RBI than Cincinnati first baseman (and 2010 NL MVP) Joey Votto, who the Nats will see for a three-game set beginning tonight.

Washington, which will need to find an offensive lift here or there from the outfielders replacing Jayson Werth during his time on the shelf, found two of them Thursday night. Roger Bernadina flashed his power for the first time this year, dropping a home run to dead center field to open the sixth inning and get the Nationals on the board. Then in the ninth, with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead, Rick Ankiel found the seats in right for a huge insurance run to provide the final 4-2 margin of victory.

Strasburg will deservedly dominate Friday’s headlines, just as he did the Pittsburgh lineup, but the complete team effort was just the type of game a team that had dropped six consecutive road games and three straight overall needed before heading to face a tough opponent in Cincinnati. It was also a nice reminder that as historically good as everyone in the rotation has been, Strasburg will continue to set the bar.

You’re up, Gio.

To Begin Again from the Beginning

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Spring Training can spoil you, with its temperatures that stay warm through the balmy evenings and its persistent sunshine. It’s perfect beach weather, even if you don’t have the time to actually enjoy the surf and sand. Despite the heavy travel and the general lack of off-days, there is a vacation-like quality about the whole process.

Of course, all of that ends today. Rather, it ended last night, when the team stepped off the charter from Ft. Myers, landing at Dulles at about 7:45pm. The temperature was a mild 60 degrees, but still a dozen degrees colder than the coldest anyone in camp had felt in weeks. It was a solemn but encouraging reminder that we were home, that the real season was about to begin. It will certainly get no warmer in Chicago on Thursday, as the 2012 campaign begins in earnest at the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field.

Here’s a quick timeline of some of the notable events as Spring Training quietly came to its unofficial end (after all, there is one last exhibition game in D.C. Tuesday):

6:57am: We pull into Space Coast Stadium before dawn, as players, coaches and staff are already on the scene loading the moving van and the busses.

7:41am: Wheels rolling, we take off from Viera on our way to Ft. Myers, not to return until next February.

JetBlue Field, spring home of the Red Sox, from in front of the home dugout.

11:22am: After a long ride across the state of Florida, we arrive at beautiful, new JetBlue ballpark, also known as Fenway South, the spring home of the Boston Red Sox.

12:34pm: In Davey Johnson’s pregame press conference, he expresses his confidence in the team in both the near and long term. “I like our on-field product right now,” he said. “And it’s only going to get stronger.”

1:35pm: Aaron Cook throws the first pitch of the final Florida game of 2012 for the Nationals, a ball high to Roger Bernadina.

2:26pm: Danny Espinosa gets the Nationals on the board first with a solo home run, his second of the spring and his second in as many days.

3:46pm: Down in the clubhouse, we run into Chad Durbin. The reliever has just returned to the team after being with his wife, who delivered a healthy baby boy on Friday, and is running on almost no sleep. Regarding his outing, he quips, “I might have made a couple of mistakes. Not that I remember them.”

5:17pm: The game over, the buses have brought us literally across the street from the ballpark to the Southwest Florida International Airport, where we take off on the team charter to return to D.C.

The view from high atop the Green Monster at JetBlue Park, also known as Fenway South.

7:42pm: It’s official, the 2012 Nationals have arrived in the Nation’s Capital for the first time. Well, almost. The charter actually lands at Dulles, where we meet another round of buses to get us home.

8:37pm: Just blocks from the ballpark, we pull off of 395 onto South Capitol Street, swinging around the elbow-shaped off ramp. To our right, in the dark, a lit-up field at the Randall Recreation Center is buzzing with activity. Two teams are playing baseball, adorned in their simple, slightly mismatched uniforms at a park with an all-dirt infield. The only spectators are a handful of parents and coaches; there are no grandstands, no electronic scoreboards, no walk-up music.

This is the game in its purest form, a humble reminder of the joy that can sometimes be lost in the grind of the Major League calendar. It is also a reminder that on fields big and small everywhere, baseball is ready to be played once more.

8:41pm: After a long day of travel and a longer month of preparation and anticipation, we’re finally home.

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