Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Matt Capps and Ivan Rodriguez celebrate after securing the Nats' 7-5 win.
They'd never fully admit it, but there are probably people inside the Nationals' clubhouse who felt the same way, knowing what a daunting path they faced in the season's opening stanza.
Three at home against the Phillies. Three on the road in New York. And then three more on the road at Philadelphia. Throw in the fact they've gotten one quality start from their rotation, own a collective 7.04 ERA, a .233 team batting average and have been outscored 63-40.
Doesn't 4-5 sound pretty good right about now?
"It's encouraging, because I don't think we've played that good of baseball," manager Jim Riggleman said following today's dramatic 7-5 win at Citizens Bank Park. "I think we've played hard. I think we've played with great effort and intensity. But as far as getting the combination of pitching and hitting, we've done that only a couple of times. But we've got four wins. I think we've got to look at that as a good thing for us, because we really haven't gotten out of the blocks yet."
Today's victory -- a tense, 3-hour, 27-minute affair with several twists and turns -- might have been as impressive a win as Washington will pull off all season.
It featured solid work from Scott Olsen, who in his season debut had allowed one run on three hits entering the sixth before fading. It's hard to believe that only three weeks ago, the left-hander looked hopeless, unable to throw a baseball more than 86 mph and unable to retire big-league hitters. Slowly but surely, he has progressed to the point where today he could twice strike out Chase Utley, including once on a 92-mph fastball.
"It's been [getting better] since day one of spring training," Olsen said. "Building up pitches and building up arm strength. It's all supposed to culminate in the regular season. Now I'm 100 percent, ready to go. Now we just ride it out and hopefully stay consistent through the rest of the year."
This game also featured a trio of clutch hits from Adam Dunn (solo homer in the eighth), Ryan Zimmerman (pinch-hit, two-run homer in the eighth) and Ivan Rodriguez (two-out, two-run single in the ninth).
"It's nice to actually get in and be a part of something," said Zimmerman, who had been out of the lineup four straight games with a tight left hamstring. "It's not fun to sit there and watch your teammates go out there and battle and go through a couple tough games and not be able to contribute. To be able to go out there and get a big hit, it was fun."
And how did that leg feel trotting around the bases?
"I could have ran 100 mph right there," Zimmerman said.
Let's also not ignore Matt Capps' five-out save, the first of his career. Yes, the Nats' closer did serve up a solo homer to Shane Victorino to open the ninth, but he also retired Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth (all representing the tying run) to finish it off and put an exclamation point on a well-earned victory.
"You want to play against the best, and you want to compete against the best," said Capps, who is now 4-for-4 in save opportunities.
The Nats can say they've competed against the best the National League has to offer, six times in a span of 11 days. They went 2-4 against the Phillies, and honestly, there's no shame in that.
There's also no shame in going 3-3 on a road trip to New York and Philadelphia, not when you're coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons and are fielding a 25-man roster that doesn't stack up in the talent department with plenty of opponents.
Perhaps the best sign is that the Nationals, while encouraged to be one game under .500 at this point, are by no means content with that record.
"We let a couple slip away that we probably should have won," Dunn said. "But any time you play .500 on the road, that's kind of the goal. Hopefully we can take care of teams at home that we're supposed to take care of."
The Nats survived Round One of their season-long boxing match, and they may not face a tougher stretch of games all year. Now we find out if they can hold up over the long haul and actually distinguish themselves from some other competition.