There was a point early Saturday evening in which the Nationals' season appeared to be at a potential breaking point. Having already lost the first two games of a showdown series with the Braves -- blowing a nine-run lead in one of them -- they now put themselves in an early 2-0 hole in the nightcap of a doubleheader.
At that moment, the idea of the Nationals finding themselves in second place by Sunday evening was terrifyingly possible.
But then John Lannan pitched the game of his life to lead his team to a come-from-behind victory. And then Ryan Zimmerman led an early offensive onslaught against Atlanta right-hander Jair Jurrjens Sunday afternoon. And then Ross Detwiler slammed the door on any possibility of another meltdown with seven strong innings.
And by the end of the day, the Nationals not only had themselves a 9-2 win but a split of this key series and a 3 12-game lead once again over their chief competition in the NL East.
"To be down two games in a four-game series and come back and win the last two and kind of stay where you're at as far as the division, it's a good feeling for us," Danny Espinosa said. "It's a tough challenge right there. We don't give up, but it's tough not to almost fold."
The Nationals didn't fold, not in the least. If anything, they rose up and played two of their best all-around games of the season, capped by a laugher in Sunday's finale.
The first of Zimmerman's two homers on the day, plus RBI hits from Espinosa and a red-hot Roger Bernadina put the Nationals up 4-0 before many in the crowd of 34,917 found their seats. Zimmerman's second homer of the day, combined with another RBI hit from Espinosa, made it 6-0 in the third inning. And by the time rookie catcher Sandy Leon launched a bases-loaded double in the fifth to make it 8-0, the mood in the Nationals dugout was jovial once again.
"With as much baseball as we've played this week," Zimmerman said, "with the weather and all the things we've had to deal with, and the first two games the way they went, for us to come back and win the next two games I think shows what kind of team this is."
Staked to that early lead, Detwiler did exactly what a pitcher in his situation is supposed to do: He went right after Atlanta's lineup, not wasting any time or any pitches. The left-hander gave up seven hits over seven innings, but he issued only one walk and ultimately allowed only one earned run to cross the plate.
And by pitching with such efficiency, he was able to convince Johnson to let him take the mound for the top of the seventh and provide some more much-needed relief for an overworked bullpen.
"With the doubleheader yesterday and everything, I knew the bullpen needed a little break," Detwiler said. "I was just trying to get early outs and get as deep into the game as possible."
The 26-year-old lefty has quietly become just as valuable a piece of the sport's best rotation as All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and the dominant Jordan Zimmermann. He now sports a 3.01 ERA over 14 starts, a 2.35 ERA in five starts since he rejoined the rotation.
"He's just turned into one heck of a pitcher," Johnson said.