Talk about modest, midseason milestones to the Nationals and they'll quickly remind you they have bigger goals in mind. What they want can't be captured in July. They want hardware, rings, the stuff people remember long down the road after generations have past.
But the present deserves its own appreciation, and there were several notable marks the Nationals reached in their 6-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 92 of the 2016 season that are worth pointing out. They moved to 20 games over .500 for the first time all year. They pushed their division lead to a season-high seven games. And they matched their steals total as a team from all of 2015.
The Nationals have returned for the second half with two wins against a Pittsburgh Pirates team that won 98 just one year ago. The Pirates are hungry and at 46-45 are clinging to diminishing playoff hopes. They need these games more than the Nats, but it is Washington that has emerged from the All-Star break looking as strong and determined as when they left.
“That was our goal was to be 20 over," manager Dusty Baker said. "I challenged the team to finish strong in the first half and come out the second half strong as well. A lot of times you can catch teams that are still in vacation mode right before the first half ends and right when the second half starts."
The Nationals now hold a seven-game lead in the NL East due to the Mets and Marlins both losing on Saturday night. Washington has won five straight and extended their division lead by three games in that stretch. If the Nats keep their pace, Miami and New York will soon have better luck chasing an NL Wild Card spot.
Saturday night's win was yet another well-rounded effort for the Nats. They saw starter Tanner Roark pitch into the ninth inning and finish with eight scoreless frames. Bench player Stephen Drew came through with three doubles in Daniel Murphy's place. And Anthony Rendon homered and landed an RBI single.
Even with Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross injured, and even after a four-day All-Star break, the Nats are firing on all cylinders.
"We’re having a lot of fun," Roark said. "We’re keeping it loose in the clubhouse. We’re having fun on the bench as well. When everyone’s having fun collectively, as a team, you’re unselfish. That’s what a good team does, and I feel like we’re doing that right now.”
They put pressure on the Pirates in a variety of ways Saturday night, including on the base paths. Jayson Werth stole his fourth base of the season and Espinosa got his sixth. The combination gave the Nationals 57 on the season, which matched their total from all of last year.
That's a testament to Baker's style. He stated back in November at his introductory press conference that he wanted the Nationals to run more. It's also a feather in Davey Lopes' cap. The first base coach was brought in largely because of his base-stealing expertise.
"Davey reads pitchers better than anybody," Baker said. "Davey knows when they breathe if they're going home or they're going to first. Davey was the best baserunner and best basestealer that I've ever played with. Davey works tirelessly with his baserunners. Sometimes, I wish they'd listen to him a little bit more, but he's gaining more and more of their confidence. Especially when you have guys that know his knowledge and know what he can do - like Jayson Werth, who had him in Philly. And the guys are beginning to trust him more and more."
The Nationals have 70 games to go in the 2016 regular season and, if they have it their way, many more in October. But Saturday night was yet another reminder of how complete and versatile this team is and what they are capable of when they put it all together.
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