It took nearly a month, but perhaps the 2015 Nationals are beginning to forge an identity, one that bears some strong resemblance to the 2014 version of this club.
Whether overcoming injuries to key regulars, a sloppy play here and there or a late deficit, these Nationals are beginning to show a characteristic key to any successful team.
“We’re a resilient group,” Ian Desmond said following Monday night’s 6-4 win over the Marlins. “We got a lot of guys in here who believe in each other and are pulling on the same end of the rope. It’s fun to be a part of.”
The Nationals are having lots of fun right now, and deservedly so. On the heels of a wild road trip that began with four straight losses, then changed course with a record-breaking rally, they have now won six of their last seven. Stuck in last place in the NL East, a full 8 games back only seven days ago, they’re now in second place, only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Mets.
And they’ve done this thanks to some impressive performances late in games, with Monday night’s effort the latest addition to the list.
Trailing 4-2 in the eighth after the Marlins got a pair of 2-out RBI singles off rookie reliever Matt Grace, the Nationals stormed back to score four runs in the bottom of the inning, thanks to a blast by Desmond and then a perfectly placed bloop by Yunel Escobar to cap a brilliant night at the plate by the veteran infielder.
“This is the best game of my career,” Escobar said through interpreter Nilson Robledo after his first-ever 5-for-5 performance.
Escobar had already singled four times over the course of the night — a grounder up the middle, a line drive to left, a line drive to right, a hit-and-run to right — before he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth with two outs, two on and the game knotted at 4.
With first base open and the .176-hitting Jayson Werth behind him, Escobar figured the Marlins might walk him.
“I don’t think he’s going to pitch to me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Marlins reliever Bryan Morris did pitch to him, though, throwing a fastball high for ball one, then another fastball down that Escobar fouled off. Morris’ 1-1 pitch was up and over the outer-third of the plate, so Escobar did what he has made a career of doing: He went with the pitch and sent it into shallow right field. Tyler Moore and Denard Span scampered home, and the crowd of 24,731 rejoiced the home team’s first lead of the night.
“He doesn’t get outside himself,” manager Matt Williams said of Escobar, now hitting .311 for the season. ‘He understands situations, he understands what’s needed in that given at-bat, he’s got an idea of what the pitcher’s gonna do, he studies the previous hitters before him and simply has an approach when he goes up there.”
Escobar’s big hit was made possible only by Desmond’s big homer, which tied the game only five minutes earlier. Desmond is the exact opposite type of hitter as his fellow infielder, aggressive (often to a fault) instead of patient and taking what the pitcher gives him.
But when it works, as it did this time, the end result is a thing of beauty.
Pouncing on Morris’ first-pitch fastball, Desmond sent the ball flying to center field, bouncing it off the grassy batter’s eye beyond the fence for his second homer of the season.
“Swing hard in case you hit it,” he said with a smile. “I hope it gets up. I hit it good, but I didn’t know if it was high enough. It made it over. It was a good one.”
This has been an emotional four weeks for Desmond, who endured through a horrific stretch of errors at shortstop, then after rebounding in the field wound up in an 0-for-29 slump at the plate during the Nationals’ recent road trip. That home run, though, left Desmond 5 for his last 9, and elicited a loud ovation from the crowd, which drew him up the dugout steps for a quick curtain call.
“It was huge,” he said. “I think coming off a long road trip and to come home and have our fans, with a lot going on in the city, come out and support us and then obviously stick around after we probably frustrated them for a few innings … it paid off for them. They got to see a good W.”
The Nationals have had a bunch of good W’s lately. And that has left everyone associated with this ballclub beaming a lot more than they were through a rough opening stretch to this season.