Nats headed in right direction behind strong pitching
With best ERA in the Major Leagues, determined Washington club also getting healthy
MILWAUKEE -- At the end of the night, both the bottom line and the trend line were extremely positive for the Washington Nationals.
After defeating the Milwaukee Brewers, 3-0, on Monday night, the Nationals left Miller Park holding a two-game lead over their closest pursuers in the National League East, the Atlanta Braves.
This doesn't exactly represent division domination, but it equals the Nats' largest lead of the season, previously achieved on April 10. They are headed in the right direction, which is upward.
They are 15-8 since May 30. They are not at full health, but they are healthier than they have been. The very fact that Gio Gonzalez, in his second start coming back from shoulder inflammation, was on the mound to give Washington six shutout innings Monday night was evidence of that.
And after Gonzalez, the bullpen trio of Aaron Barrett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard gave the Brewers nothing, not even one baserunner, over the last three innings.
None of this work was an aberration. This is the kind of pitching that could make the Nationals not simply contenders, but winners, period.
The Nats' team ERA, now an even 3.00, leads the Major Leagues. Their bullpen ERA, an even more remarkable 2.47, also leads the Majors. This is the kind of pitching that makes consistent winning possible, up to and including winning divisions, pennants and, yes, if you can keep it going into autumn, the World Series.
But one thing at a time.
The Brewers came to this moment with the best record in the NL, tearing it up offensively and coming off a 6-1 road trip. But they were stopped cold here, by Gonzalez and the trio of relievers.
Nationals manager Matt Williams was ejected after the top of the second inning following a brief dispute with home-plate umpire Mark Wegner. Bench coach Randy Knorr took over the rest of the way.
"I think it's a huge win for us," Knorr said. "We've had our troubles with tough teams. These guys are tough. Outside of Colorado, these guys are the best hitting team in the National League. [Gonzalez] made the pitches when he needed to, and keeping these guys off-balance is a pretty good job."
Gonzalez was particularly effective against a completely right-handed lineup with a high volume of changeups. Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez, who had reached base in 35 straight games, was 0-for-4; 0-for-3 against Gonzalez.
"I never in my life seen as many changeups as I saw today," Gomez said. "They got me out today on changeups. I never expected to see [more] than maybe one. Not like continually, like they were doing."
"The Brewers are red-hot," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to make a statement with the rotation and trying to be a part of it. It was a lineup that you had to prepare yourself for, and I just did my best to compete and go as far as I could in the game. Any one of those guys, you make a mistake and they'll make you pay for it. I was just fortunate enough to keep the ball down and let them hit it at someone."
Meanwhile, the good news continued for Washington on other fronts. The march toward better health continued. Bryce Harper began a rehab assignment at Class A Advanced Potomac on Monday night. The Nationals hope that he will be back with them next week. Catcher Wilson Ramos, also on a rehab assignment with Potomac, is expected to rejoin the Nats later this week.
There have been plenty of ups and downs with the Nationals, many of the downs due to injuries to key personnel -- Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Doug Fister, Harper, Ramos and more.
The Nats, understandably, have not pulled away from the rest of the division. But they have been good enough and tough enough to hang in there until better health and better days arrived.
In that regard, Williams likes his club's makeup. He attributes its staying power to some positive character traits.
"I think it's tenacity and I think it's work ethic and I think it's desire," Williams said Monday. "If you have those things, then success can come if you do things right.
"Confidence? Of course, if you win, you're more confident than if you lose. But I think that it's the work ethic that they've brought every day that has allowed them to get to the point where they are right now. And they will continue that."
There has been, Williams said, no wavering on that kind of determined approach.
"We have optional early ground balls on any given day, and the whole team shows up," Williams said. "That's really nice to see. And it's not mandatory. But they want to do it, they want to be good, they want to win. All of those are really good things."
With the Nationals, "the really good things" are coming into sharper focus, not only on the field, but in the NL East standings.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.