Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nats needed a brilliant performance from Scott Olsen to pull off today's win.
It shouldn't come as much surprise that the Nationals hadn't pulled off a 1-0 victory in some time before today's thriller over the Dodgers. Their last win by that slimmest of margins? Sept. 16, 2008 over the Mets, with stellar pitching performances from such luminaries as Odalis Perez, Mike Hinckley and Joel Hanrahan.
So this one should be cherished by all 18,395 who were there to see it in person and certainly by the 25 men in uniform who made it happen. It required big efforts from plenty of them to accomplish this.
"This was a great game to be a part of," said Tyler Clippard, who churned out another scoreless inning of relief. "We did the little things right. Played great defense. Just a good team win."
Scott Olsen was the biggest star, his seven innings of shutout ball a total shot in the arm for a Nationals club that had to go into the day hopeful of the best but fearful of the worst out of the erratic left-hander. Only five days ago, Olsen was shellacked by the Rockies for six runs in two innings, raising plenty of doubts about his future.
There was little doubt about his performance today. Plain and simple, it was a masterpiece. The seven scoreless innings are good enough. The eight strikeouts are even better. The 71-to-28 strike-to-ball ratio was downright staggering.
"His concentration level was really at a peak," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Every pitch, you could just tell he was driven to make a good pitch."
Olsen had no choice but to put everything he had into every pitch. With Adam Dunn's first-inning RBI groundball producing the afternoon's only run, the left-hander had no margin for error.
"In a game like that, where their pitcher is going just as well," Olsen said, "you go out there, try to have quick innings and get him back out there."
Which he did. After allowing three straight singles in the first, Olsen proceeded to retire 19 of the final 23 batters he faced. And with a devastating slider that left the Dodgers' lineup looking silly most of the day, he wound up turning in one of the best starts in Nationals history. Seriously, this one makes the top 10. Maybe the top five.
"He pitched as good as I've ever seen him pitch," Dunn said.
Yet this win still wouldn't have been possible if not for stellar relief work from Clippard and Matt Capps and two spectacular catches by Josh Willingham and Justin Maxwell.
Clippard, who has come out of nowhere to be the most-dominant reliever in the National League, retired the side in the eighth, striking out Russell Martin with a 1-2 fastball. The bespectacled right-hander now owns an 0.61 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings.
Capps, now a perfect 8-for-8 in save situations, allowed a leadoff double to James Loney in the ninth but then set down three straight to finish off a tense ballgame that might as well have been a pitcher's dream.
"Absolutely," Clippard said. "For a pitching staff, shutouts are always something you want to get. And then to throw a 1-0 lead on top of it, it makes it that much more exciting to go out there and get the job done."
But give a couple of huge assists to Willingham and Maxwell. Willingham came charging in to make a diving catch of Rafael Furcal's eighth-inning liner to left. Maxwell had to come even farther in to make a brilliant catch of Ronnie Belliard's sinking liner to right in the ninth.
Even more amazing: It was only the second ball hit Maxwell's way all afternoon, the only one he actually had a chance to catch in the air.
"Right before the pitch, I was like: 'Get ready because you're going to get one soon,'" Maxwell said. "And sure enough, I did."
It shouldn't go unnoticed that the Nationals are 6-2 this season in games decided by two runs or less. Their record last year in close games like that: 31-47.
What would have happened had today's game been played on April 25, 2009?
"Last year, something would have gone wrong and we would have lost that game," Dunn said. The flyball to Maxwell in the ninth "might have got lost in the sun, or it might have clinked off his glove."
Not anymore. These 2010 Nats aren't just finding ways to win close games. They're expecting to win them.
"This team didn't lose 102 games. That was last year," Dunn said. "It all started in the spring. The attitude was great in the spring. I don't know any guys on this team that don't believe we can't do some damage. And I don't just mean compete. I mean win."
More and more, as the Nationals keep pulling out victories like this, as the calendar approaches May and as the pieces begin to come together, you can't help but think Dunn may be onto something.