No matter how powerful a baseball team’s offense – and the Washington Nationals have had one of baseball’s best recently – pitching is what sets teams apart in September and the postseason.
Tonight, led by John Lannan (3-0) with assistance from new bullpen workhorse Christian Garcia, Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett, and Drew Storen who earned his second save, the Nationals’ pitching staff overcame numerous Nationals failures at the plate to defeat the New York Mets, 2-0 and sweep the 3-game series. With the Atlanta Braves’ 8-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, the
Nationals (89-54) lead in the NL East is 8.5 games, with 19 yet to play. Washington’s magic number to clinch the division is 11, six to clinch a playoff spot.
Solo home runs by Ryan Zimmerman (22nd, extending his hitting streak to 16 games) and Ian Desmond (23rd) gave Lannan and friends all the offense they needed. Otherwise, the Nats offense faltered, twice leaving the bases loaded. For the game, Washington left nine runners on base as did New York (65-78), who lost despite outhitting the Nationals, 8-7.
In just his third major league start of the 2012 season and the first in place of Stephen Strasburg, Lannan pitched brilliantly. Pitching for the first time in 10 days, Lannan overcame some initial rustiness to pitch 5 2/3 shutout innings. The Nationals left hander escaped a second inning jam courtesy of a brilliant play by Zimmerman on Mets’ pitcher Matt Harvey‘s slow hit grounder. Steve Lombardozzi stretched to nab Zimmerman’s off target throw to force Jason Bay at second.
Harvey (3-5) was the hard-luck loser, allowing only Zimmerman’s blast in five innings. The 23-year old prospect walked three and struck out 10. Long innings ended Harvey’s night after 106 pitches, quite a lot this late in the year for the Mets most promising young pitcher.
Lannan cruised, overcoming a Zimmerman error by picking off Ronny Cedeno, until the 6th inning. With a runner on first and one out, Lannan, after getting ahead in the count, 1-2 to Lucas Duda, walked the Mets big left handed hitter. Davey Johnson lifted Lannan for Christian Garcia, appearing in his third game in four days.
On his first pitch, Garcia plunked New York catcher Kelly Shoppach in the arm, loading the bases. Pinch hitter Ike Davis lined a fly ball to right center, but Bryce Harper chased it down to end the inning. Lannan’s scoreless work remained intact.
Lannan’s victory looked secure until the 9th inning. With Tyler Clippard unavailable, Johnson turned to Sean Burnett to close the win. Burnett, who had missed more than a week of work nursing a sore left elbow, battled, but an Andres Torres single put runners on the corners with two out.
Drew Storen entered the game to pitch to pinch hitter Daniel Murphy who represented the potential winning run. Reprising his 2011 role, Storen retired Murphy on a routine flyball to Harper to secure another win for the Washington Nationals, still boasting baseball’s best record with a trip to Atlanta next.
Champ of the Game: Lannan, who has delivered every time the Nationals have called on him, this time after a long layoff between starts. He has won all three major league starts this season and has a sterling 2.41 ERA.
For the Mets, Harvey showed why he is so highly touted. Only a high pitch count ended his night. The Nationals had to have felt good when he left the game.
Chump of the Game: The Nationals hitters in the 6th and 7th innings, who failed to bring home even a single run, despite the bases being loaded with no outs in the 6th and one out in the 7th.
For the Mets, their batters went 1-8 with runners in scoring position. Cedeno gets special mention for being picked off when the batter faced a full count.
Unsung Hero: Zimmerman extended his hitting streak, drove in a run for the 9th consecutive game, and made several great plays in the field (but one more error). If he continues his hot hitting and can resolve his fielding woes, the “Face of the Franchise” could be a late September force for the Nationals.
Next Game: Friday, September 14, 7:35 p.m., Turner Field, Atlanta.The Nationals face the Braves in the first of a three-game series, the final time the two teams meet this season. Pitching match-ups have not been determined. Expect the Braves, desperate to close their 8.5 game gap to throw the kitchen sink at the Nationals in every game.
These contests mark the beginning of a brutal end-of-season run for Washington. The Nationals face playoff hopefuls, including on-fire Milwaukee and Philadelphia in all 19 games. (3 in Atlanta, 3 with the Dodgers, four with Milwaukee, three at the Phillies, three at St. Louis and a season-ending home series with Philadelphia). No easy games remain for the Washington Nationals. Should they make the playoffs, they will be battle tested.