Aug 25

Homestand for the ages shows Nats have character

Has there ever been a better time to be a Nationals fan?

A team that some baseball experts called the biggest disappointment of the season just a few weeks ago now sits atop the National League after a 9-1 homestand for the ages — the most remarkable this team has seen since moving to town.

This one wasn’t quite as successful as the 12-1 run in 2005 that included the team’s last 10-game winning streak. But it will take some doing to match the drama at Nationals Park in the past 10 days: Five walkoffs among six come-from-behind wins – including a rally from a five-run deficit that just might top them all.

At the start of the fourth inning Sunday, as they have countless times in 2014, the Nationals and their season teetered on mediocrity. Once again, as they’ve done countless times in 2014, the Nats showed why they’re among baseball’s best teams — and the game’s most exciting.

A hungry San Francisco team surely remembered what happened in June. Once the hottest club in baseball, the Giants have struggled since the Nats took 3 out of 4 at AT&T Park. Now, two days after breaking Washington’s 10-game winning streak, they had their chance to turn the tables in the series’ pivotal game.

They had Stephen Strasburg on the ropes, knocking him around for five runs in three innings. Without a hit to that point, the Nats looked as if they’d let the series slip away.

Not this team. Not this year.

A Nationals team that was down to its last strike on opening day against the New York Mets; a Nationals team that fought its way over .500 and into first place in the NL East despite injuries to eight members of the opening day roster; a Nationals team that walked off three nights in a row and five times in in six games — found a way.

RBI doubles by Adam LaRoche and Asdrubal Cabrera were just the warmup. In the second-most productive inning at Nationals Park this year, the offense chased starter Ryan Vogelsong, then pounded relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi, who came into the game with respective ERAs of 1.94 and 1.46. After it was all over, the Nats had taken the lead with six runs on a team record-tying eight hits in the sixth.

They got some help from Giants outfielder Michael Morse, who showed everyone on hand why general manager Mike Rizzo dealt him away two seasons ago. Morse’s twisting, turning misplay of Bryce Harper’s routine fly ball into a double wasn’t quite as bad as his adventure playing the caroms in the left field corner on Scott Hairston’s game-tying two-bagger — a play that evoked a certain cable sports network anchor’s “rumblin’, stumbin’, bumblin’ ” routine.

Wham-bam, the rout was on. Even after the Nats took a three-run lead into the eighth, folks who ducked out early to beat the traffic were drawn back in by roars for late-inning feats, until it got too ridiculous to watch.

Between their own timely hitting and the Giants’ miscues, the Nats clearly separated themselves from their opponents – and from most of the league for that matter.

With the largest division lead in the major leagues, eight games over the fading Atlanta Braves, the Nats have a chance to send their division rivals into oblivion when the two teams meet six times in September. Next week’s series at Dodger Stadium will have postseason seeding implications.

No, nothing is locked up yet, and there is still plenty of baseball to be played, but if we’ve learned anything this past week, it’s that this Nationals team knows how to win, no matter what.

Say what you want about Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez’ recent pitching struggles. Say what you want about a few recent blown saves. Say what you want about the quality of the bench. This team has character. This team has fight. This team finds a way to win, even when one player (or more) has a rotten day.

This team will have us on the edge of our seats into October – which could be an even better time to be a Nationals fan.