NEW YORK — September, for the Washington Nationals, is a time for long sleeves and magic numbers. It’s an unusual and new feeling for this franchise: play meaningful games this late in the year, mark off the wins as they come and check on how the chasing Atlanta Braves have fared.
The manager watches that magic number. Players don’t deny doing the same. Each day brings another opportunity to shed another digit off the number needed to clinch the National League East title. With a 5-3 win over the New York Mets on Tuesday night, the Nationals dropped the number to 14. A Braves loss later in the night dropped the number to 13.
“I’ve been looking at them for a while now,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said.
Added Jayson Werth: “It’s been that way for 10 days, two weeks. As soon as September rolls around, things are pretty serious. We got a chance to do something here.”
September for these Nationals is also a time when all of their regular starters are healthy and firing at once. With the magnitude of the situation apparent to all, they rise to the occasion. Bench players, once everyday starters when others were injured, slam important game-changing home runs late in the game. The lineup’s first two hitters batter a leading Cy Young Award candidate and, eventually, they all chase him from the game.
On the first pitch he saw from Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, pinch-hitter Tyler Moore drilled a two-run home run in the seventh inning that gave the Nationals a lead they didn’t relinquish.
Werth and Bryce Harper, who notched a career-high four hits, formed a terrorizing duo atop the batting order until Moore delivered the crushing blow. And as an added benefit, Moore saddled Dickey with a loss, preventing him from joining another Cy Young hopeful, Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez, with 19 wins.
“That’s the best lineup that I’ve faced,” Dickey said. “They’re just so functional. They’ve got guys that can run. They’ve got great energy. They’ve got old guys that have good approaches. They’ve got young guys that go first to third on you. They’ve got power. Every one of them can hit a home run on you, just about. There’s not a lot of breathing room.”
In the remaining games before an important series against the Braves this weekend, the Nationals have put themselves in a comfortable position. They have one more game remaining against the Mets, but have guaranteed a series win. They matched their season-high 71/2-game lead in the division. They will enter this weekend’s three-game series against Atlanta with no less than a 61/2-game lead.
Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann battled both himself and Mets hitters for five innings. His fastball command was shaky. Being efficient and aggressive is large part of his approach, and when he missed on his first pitch to start, he knew what was to come.
“I felt good tonight,” Zimmermann said, “just missing a little bit on the corner and if I can’t throw strike one, it’s going to be a long night for me.”
He allowed six base runners, including three walks, through the first three innings but prevented all from scoring by working magic when it mattered. The Mets took a 2-1 lead in the fifth with three straight hits off Zimmermann. But he kept the game close for Moore to give the Nationals the lead.
Moore, a Mississippi native who grew up a Braves fan, was part of why the Nationals stayed afloat when players like Werth, Michael Morse and others were injured. Once Werth returned in early August, Moore got pushed to the bench. Johnson feared his development would be stunted with fewer at-bats. Moore would have learn how to be aggressive at the plate as pinch hitter.
“An everyday ballplayer likes to go up and take a pitch and get comfortable with the timing and everything,” Johnson said. “But I talked to him about it and told him: You start swinging from the get-go and you’ll gauge your timing better. And he’s handled it like a veteran.”
On Tuesday, Moore followed his normal routine. He went to the batting cages to take his hacks. He doesn’t like video of opposing pitchers, wanting to keep hitting simple, maybe reviewing only to see a pitcher’s release point. Moore joked that he asked if any of the Nationals batting-practice pitchers could throw a knuckleball. He said he struck out against every knuckleballer he faced in the minors.
With one out in the seventh inning and Kurt Suzuki on first, Johnson called on Moore. He crushed the first pitch into the left field seats to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. In his career, Moore has faced Dickey only twice now, and smacked hits in both appearances, seeing only four of Dickey’s pitches.
“It comes with experience,” Moore said of pinch-hitting. “I failed so many times. I succeed kind of through that, learning from myself and learning on situations from the game. By no means am I a very good pinch hitter. I was able to come through tonight.”