Nats capitalize on Marlins' sloppy play
Bergmann, timely hitting lead Washington to Labor Day win
WASHINGTON -- With Monday's 6-3 victory over Florida, the Nationals caused baseball's tectonic plates to shift in a direction that would have been unthinkable back in March. Washington is no longer in last place in the National League East.
"Oh, we're following it," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "Our guys know."
The late-season battle with the Marlins may not be receiving national attention, but it's big news for the Nationals, who know they weren't expected to pick up 61 wins this season.
"Especially after people wrote us off at the beginning of the year, it means a lot to us," pitcher Jason Bergmann said. "I think it means a whole lot to everybody."
A large portion of that success has been the team's pitching staff. Monday was no different, as Bergmann went seven solid innings, striking out nine and allowing one run.
Since missing a month because of hamstring tightness, the right-hander has looked sharper than ever. His slider, which usually comes in about 84 mph, hit the radar gun at 87 on Monday
He was also able to fight through a jam in the first inning, needing 27 pitches to retire the side after allowing the leadoff runner to reach second.
"To get out of an inning with a runner on second and no outs -- any game, at any time -- that's a big thing," he said.
Bergmann settled in after that, with his lone blemish a solo home run surrendered to Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs. He turned a 6-1 lead over to the bullpen, which Acta saw as an opportunity to rest workhorses Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero.
Things didn't turn out that way, as three of the first four Marlins hitters reached base against reliever Jesus Colome. That brought Acta out to the mound to bring in Rauch, and later Cordero.
"Today was the perfect day to stay away from those guys, but because of how dicey it got in the eighth, we had no choice but to use them," Acta said. "That's the reason those guys have pitched so much, because almost every game we win is in a close fashion."
Rauch threw the most important pitches of the game, with the bases loaded and just one out. The first batter he faced was Jacobs, who had hit a home run earlier in the game. After jumping to an 0-2 lead in the count, Jacobs fouled off five pitches to keep his at-bat alive before Rauch finally struck him out looking.
The next batter wasn't any easier. Rauch threw three consecutive balls to Cody Ross, putting the pitcher at a disadvantage. Fighting back with his fastball, Rauch then threw three straight strikes, putting away Ross with a 93-mph fastball.
"It basically came down to, 'Here it is, hit it,'" Rauch said. "For me, if a guy is showing he can't get much on a fastball, chances are I'm going to stay with it."
Cordero came in to finish off the ninth, completing a routine that was put in jeopardy earlier in the season, when the two relievers were mentioned as possible trade candidates.
"I'm really glad we kept those guys around," Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. "They've done a great job for us the last couple years."
Schneider pitched in with a big hit offensively in the second to score the first two runs for the Nationals. After Dmitri Young and Austin Kearns reached base on defensive errors, it was up to the catcher to capitalize with two outs.
"Obviously I know who's behind me there, hitting in the eight spot," he said. "With two strikes, you just want to put the ball in play."
The Nats followed with another scoring outburst in the sixth, taking advantage of another defensive error when Felipe Lopez tripled on a fly ball that bounced off the glove of Marlins center fielder Cody Ross. Ryan Zimmerman plated Lopez with a double, and later in the inning, Wily Mo Pena delivered one of his signature home runs to left field.
After winning a series against the Giants, the Nationals are looking to do the same to the Marlins to prove they don't belong in last place.
"I guarantee you the guys on the other side are doing the same thing," Schneider said. "You never want to be in last place."
What once seemed like a sure thing for the Nationals has turned into an exciting late-season chase. And while it won't carry into October, that's not going to stop the team from making the next two games personal.
"I want to be playing meaningful games the last month of the season," Acta said, "and we are."
Michael Phillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.