PHOENIX — Denard Span dug in, Josh Collmenter went into his funky, tomahawk-style windup and tried to sneak an 84-mph cutter over the inner half of the plate and then the ball went soaring toward right field. The game was all of 30 seconds old, many in the Chase Field crowd of 16,406 had yet to even find their seats and already the Nationals held a 1-0 lead that boosted the already-high level of confidence brewing in the visitors’ dugout.
“When you see your leadoff guy hits a homer,” catcher Wilson Ramos said, “you say something special’s coming.”
Are 10 runs in two innings — 10 runs before they had made even five outs — special enough?
The Nationals have done their share of remarkable things over two weeks of lights-out baseball, but this stood out from the pack. In the opener of a 6-game West Coast trip, they blasted Collmenter straight out of Chase Field, gave their ace a 10-run lead and cruised the rest of Monday night to an 11-1 shellacking of the Diamondbacks.
That’s five in a row for the resurgent Nationals, who since their historic rally in Atlanta two weeks ago have won 11 of 13, turned a hand-wringing 7-13 record into a comfortable 18-15 mark and climbed to within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Mets in the NL East.
“It’s been fun, obviously,” Span said. “I think it started in Atlanta on that come-from-behind win. And I think we’ve just carried that momentum since that game and have just been finding ways to win.”
Speaking of momentum, the Nationals had plenty of it through the first two innings of Monday night’s victory. And it all began with Span, who took Collmenter’s second pitch of the game deep to right for his third homer of the season, even if he wasn’t necessarily attempting to do that.
“I’m never trying to hit home runs, to be honest with you,” he said. “He threw me … a cutter that was middle-in, and I just reacted. It’s clichéd, but I just tried to put a good swing [on it].”
Nobody sparks a lineup like a good leadoff man, and so when Span gave his team a 1-0 lead only seconds into Monday’s game, the tone for the evening was set. What transpired after that was a barrage of well-struck balls off the highly ineffective Collmenter. Yunel Escobar singled (the first of his five hits on the night). Jayson Werth drew a walk. Bryce Harper came within a couple feet of yet another home run, settling instead for a runner-advancing flyout. Ryan Zimmerman left no doubt with a towering 3-run homer to left-center, giving the Nats a 4-0 lead.
And that’s all before the second inning rolled around. That’s when they really turned it on, adding six more runs on six hits, none bigger than Ramos’ bases-clearing double down the left-field line.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve created some opportunities early and gotten one or two,” manager Matt Williams said. “But tonight we got big hits. … We got some opportunities early and took advantage.”
And nobody took more advantage of all that than Max Scherzer, who was handed the ultimate gift — a 10-run lead — but did exactly what you’re supposed to do in that situation: Go right after the opposition and not even give them a sniff of a comeback.
“The trick in these situations is, once we you get a 10-run lead like that, you can’t pitch to the scoreboard,” he said. “You’ve got to treat it like it’s a 0-0 game. The old tale is: Oh, just give them fastballs, you’re just trying to get through the lineup. No, you’ve got to still pitch. You’ve got to still throw all your off-speed. You’ve got to throw backward. You’ve got to do everything that you plan on doing before the game and still continue to do that.”
Scherzer did just that, churning out seven more quality innings, allowing only a solo homer to Jordan Pacheco to earn his third win of the season.
It’s rare that a ballclub can coast through seven innings, confident the lead it already established is large enough to hold up over a full game.
What the Nationals are doing right now, though, is rare. A lineup that averaged a meager 3.45 runs during its ragged, 20-game start to the season has now averaged 6.48 runs over is last 13 games.
And when it all comes together like it did early Monday in the hot, dry, desert air, the end result is quite something to behold.
“That was a pretty good first two innings for us,” Ramos said. “The guys are hitting very good right now. We have to keep doing the same.”