Watching the River Flow
There was plenty of adversity to the Pittsburgh series: too much Sterling Marte and A.J. Burnett, too little Bryce Harper. Yet still the Nationals looked like the better team when all was said and done, even without their best players on the field. The Pirates are capable of beating anyone and making life in the NL Central miserable for the Cardinals. They won their series against the Nationals in 2012 3-2 and recently swept the Atlanta Braves.
Pittsburgh has an obvious weakness in their bullpen. They lead the league in base-on-balls and a good team will exploit that and make them pay. On Saturday night the Nats veteran hitters took the walks and let their team mates drive them in. Too often this season that strategy would have failed. But the younger Washington hitters took their game up a notch this weekend and made it work.
Although the two-run single by Wilson Ramos was the key hit in the game Saturday, the sacrifice flies won the game in the end. Tyler Moore’s was the decisive blow, but Ian Desmond and LaRoche got the runs home from the third base earlier in the game. There had been too many times in this young season when both LaRoche and Desmond would have gone down swinging in that situation.
The most pronounced trend in the game today is the proliferation of strikeouts. The current rates are at all-time highs. The modern hitter gets three strikes and he wants the most out of every one. Choking up on the bat to move the runner or shortening a swing to score the man from third seems a lost art at times. But the Nationals went back to fundamentals this weekend and the results were sweet.
The prettiest at bats of the weekend belonged to Tyler Moore. He battled for every bit of success he had. It did not come easy. After the game winning sac-fly on Saturday, he looked just as lost at the plate on Sunday afternoon as he has all year. He struck out looking, uncertain what to do with pitches too close to take. But when the chips were out in the middle of the table, he was all in.
In the eighth inning the Pirates were chipping away at the Nats lead, behind by only a run. Drew Storen had been solid in the seventh, but so many leads have gotten away. Tyler Moore had one last chance. Pittsburgh walked Adam LaRoche intentionally, putting two runners aboard to get to Moore.
As he did the night before Moore battled his way deep into the at bat. With two strikes he fouled off a tough slider. Then the sixth pitch of the at bat he just tried to make contact. It was almost an excuse-me home run that somehow managed to carry the left field wall. He got enough wood on it, enough muscle behind it, to make the stands. And that was all she wrote.
Early in the game Danny Espinosa hit a very different home run. The taught second baseman twitches when the pitcher throws the high hard one even when he doesn’t take the bait. He is the consummate modern hitter who wants to rip at everything. And when he connects the ball travels a long way like it did at PNC Park Sunday. His two-run home run in the fourth inning carried well into the left field stands, bounding into the concourse.
But his best at bat—perhaps all year–came in the second inning. He refused to chase two fastballs out of the zone and a curve in the dirt to get the count in his favor. Adam LaRoche had doubled Zimmerman to third after the Z-man took a walk. There was one out and Danny needed to make contact to get the run home, to move the narrative away from the horrible first inning that Gio Gonzalez somehow survived. Any kind of base hit would have been a huge victory and Espinosa made solid contact on the third fastball. It was still an out, but one that scored a run. Another sac-fly, one that tied the score and erased any lingering trace of Gio’s near disaster.
When a team or player is at their best they say the game is slower. Some of the young Nationals players looked like they were moving just a bit slower this past weekend. They stole bases not on their speed but by picking their chances against a weaker catcher. They were not playing slow baseball so much as smart baseball, and it made all the difference in the world.
Winning a championship one series at a time, that’s what this weekend in Pittsburgh looked like from our seats at PNC Park. And it was a beautiful weekend, slow and languorous, a mighty river inching its way to the sea on the other side of the wall.