May 3, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
PHILADELPHIA — It has happened nine times now, nine times in 29 games. And every time it happens, the Nationals give themselves even more reason to believe they can do it again.
Trailing a ballgame late, they rallied to win in dramatic fashion. Friday night’s 5-3 victory over the Phillies was merely the latest example of what has become this club’s signature trait.
“It’s just that they just keep trying, you know?” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s easy to put it into cruise if you’re behind and say: ‘Oh, it’s not our night.’ But they don’t do that. They fight. That’s a very good sign.”
Friday’s comeback was particularly impressive, considering they were down 3-0 after one inning to Cliff Lee, who has surrendered more than three earned runs only once in his last 18 starts.
The Nationals, though, aren’t so much worried about scoring runs off dominant starters these days. They’re more interested in getting those starters out of the game and then inflicting some serious damage on opposing bullpens.
After pounding Mike Adams and Jake Diekman for three runs in the top of the eighth on Friday, the Nationals now sport a collective .287 batting average and .842 OPS against relief pitchers this season. They lead the majors in both categories, with their OPS a full 52 points better than any other big-league club.
What’s behind this fairly significant trend? Well, Nationals players don’t necessarily think it has anything to do with the type of pitcher standing on the mound against them but more the overall mentality they’ve maintained when digging themselves into an early hole.
“I think it’s more of a quiet confidence,” Tyler Moore said. “We’re not rah-rah about everything. It’s just kind of like: ‘Hey, they went up 3-0. There’s a lot of game left.’ I feel like last year, we didn’t do a good job of that. I feel like we got down. This year, we’ve been doing a great of that. That kind of makes you better as the year goes on. I feel like it kind of gives you that confidence.”
Indeed, the Nationals were not particularly good at that last season. They hit just .236 against opposing bullpens, with a .675 OPS that ranked 19th in the majors.
Not surprisingly, they had scant success pulling off late rallies. It took until their 62nd game of 2013 before they rallied from three or more runs down to win. They’ve now done it five times in 29 games this season.
“I think now, nobody worries about it,” Adam LaRoche said. “It is what it is. We’ve got nine innings here to put to some runs up. More than likely, we’re going to get something going. That’s kind of that attitude now. No panic. We don’t have to turn around and score three runs right now. Keep being patient. Put up good at-bats, and we’ll have a big inning.”
And each time it happens, the Nationals insist, the confidence level in the dugout only grows.
“I think it’s one of the biggest differences between last year and this year,” Denard Span said. “When we get down, there’s a mood in the dugout. It isn’t stale. We still believe that we can come back. If we can kind of chip away and give ourselves opportunities for the last three innings, we’ll be fine. Somebody’s going to come through. Our lineup is too good. That’s what we’ve done, nine times.”
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