Jun 19, 2014, 12:57 AM EDT
From the day he took over as Nationals manager, Matt Williams preached aggression on the bases. But rarely has this team put that philosophy into practice over the season’s first 2 1/2 months.
Then came Wednesday night’s series finale against the Astros, a 6-5, come-from-behind victory keyed by an Anthony Rendon homer, a Nate McLouth pinch-hit sacrifice fly and some gutsy relief from Aaron Barrett, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano.
Topping all that, though, might well have been a host of heads-up baserunning maneuvers by several Nationals, nearly every one of them helping leading to runs crossing the plate.
“That’s something we do talk about before each series: We preach just being aggressive,” said Denard Span, who stole two bases and scored the game’s first run. “Taking first-to-third opportunities and being ready to run when the ball is in the dirt, just little things like that. That’s what wins games. Those are the little things that good teams do.”
The Nationals have been playing like a very good team for the better part of the last three weeks. They’ve won 12 of their last 18, and in sweeping this abbreviated series from the Astros, they’ve opened up a 1 1/2-game lead in the NL East heading into a huge, 4-game weekend showdown with the Braves.
This latest win can be attributed in no small part to their actions on the basepaths.
It began with the recognition that Houston starter Scott Feldman was particularly slow to the plate. The Nationals managed to steal four bases off Feldman’s first 39 pitches of the night: two by Span, two by Rendon.
“That’s good,” said Williams, who successfully challenged and got a call overturned after Span was initially ruled out in the first inning. “The opportunities have to be there. You can’t just run just to run. But tonight we took advantage of those.”
Perhaps no baserunning maneuver in this game was more impressive, though, than Jayson Werth’s swipe of second base in the bottom of the third. Catcher Jason Castro’s throw had him beat at second base, but Werth somehow managed to stop his slide short, pop up and then elude Jose Altuve’s tag.
How exactly did he pull that move off?
“Not sure,” Werth said. “I think I’ve tried that a couple times and I’ve never been successful with that. It worked out today. Hopefully I don’t ever have to try that again.”
The nifty slide proved more than show. It left Werth in scoring position and ultimately allowed him to come home on Ian Desmond’s 2-out single up the middle.
Werth’s next display of baserunning prowess proved plenty significant, too, helping key the Nationals’ game-winning rally in the seventh. Still trailing 5-4 after Rendon’s leadoff homer, Werth drew a walk, then perfectly read Adam LaRoche’s single up the middle. He never broke stride around second, coasting into third base and leaving himself in position to score the tying run on Ryan Zimmerman’s grounder to second.
“He got a good read on the ball initially hit from Adam, but he was able to turn, and he never thought twice about it,” Williams said. “That set us up, and it’s an important part of our game that we need to do. We ran the bases really well tonight.”
And because of it, the Nationals find themselves in a comforting position heading into a huge weekend against their fiercest rival.
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