Finishing strong before loud crowd, Nationals see a bright future
WASHINGTON (AP) - In the eighth inning of Washington's 3-0 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Jayson Werth sat down on the dugout bench next to Nationals teammate Michael Morse and delivered two messages:
Morse did not quite use proper curtain call etiquette while acknowledging the raucous ovation from fans to mark his 29th homer of a breakout season.
That sort of loud celebration from 37,638 spectators might become more of a regular happening at Nationals Park if the team keeps improving.
"We have a core group of fans that's small, but I think there are die-hards, if you will, out there. There's just not a lot of them, I don't think. Not yet. But it's going to spread," Werth said. "It's going to be contagious. It's going to get good."
Morse hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning, and Wilson Ramos delivered a solo shot in the fourth, backing six scoreless innings from Ross Detwiler (4-5) as the Nationals won for the 12th time in their past 15 games. They also cut Atlanta's lead over St. Louis in the NL wild-card standings to one game with three left to play.
When Morse returned to the dugout after his big hit, teammates pounded him on the helmet - not just with palms, but also with elbows, something he "invented" recently - while a standing ovation formed in the stands during Washington's home finale.
Never before treated to a curtain call in the majors, Morse wasn't sure what to do, and Werth later chided him for not going all the way up the steps and onto the field.
"I said, 'Well, you need to work on it,"' Werth recounted later. "Then I was like, 'Get used to it, because this place is going to be good.' This is how it's going to be the rest of the way. I think you can see it. The way the fans were, the way they were into it."
With three games left at the Marlins, Washington is 78-80, with a chance to finish above .500 for the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal before the 2005 season. As it is, the Nationals' 44-36 home record (they played only 80 games, because one rainout wasn't made up) is their best mark in Washington.
"The fans are excited about the future," shortstop Ian Desmond said, "and I think today showed it."
With nothing more at stake than a third-place finish, the Nationals have played well down the stretch, including taking two of three from the struggling Braves.
"Any time you play teams in your division - I don't care when it is, April, May, September - there's a pride factor going on out there," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Especially in this homestead against Atlanta: They're playing for all the marbles."
The top four hitters in the Braves' lineup, including Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla, went a combined 0 for 16 with five strikeouts.
"A very brutal loss," Braves rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman said.
Atlanta has dropped 10 of its past 15 games, allowing St. Louis to close in. The Braves finish the regular season with a three-game home series starting Monday against the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Detwiler allowed four hits and two walks while striking out four. Over his last two starts of the season, the lefty pitched 13 1-3 scoreless innings, with seven hits, seven strikeouts and three walks.
"Hopefully I'll pick up next year where I leave off this year," Detwiler said.
In the third, the Braves loaded the bases with no outs, thanks to David Ross' single and some serious wildness by Detwiler, who walked No. 8 hitter Jack Wilson and then opposing pitcher Mike Minor (5-3). But Detwiler got out of the inning unscathed: Morse caught a Michael Bourn's pop fly; Martin Prado hit a fly to right that wasn't deep enough for Ross to try to tag up and head for home; Jones grounded out.
In the fifth., Ross led off with an infield single, Wilson singled to center, and Minor moved them up with a sacrifice bunt - putting runners at second and third with one out. But Bourn lined out to second and Prado flied out.
"He grew up a lot today," Johnson said about Detwiler. "He got a little wild and didn't get overly aggressive and just stayed within himself and pitched out of a tough jam."
Henry Rodriguez replaced Detwiler in the seventh, regularly reached 100 or 101 mph and struck out all three batters he faced. He got pinch hitter Jason Heyward swinging at a 100 mph fastball, Ross on a two-strike foul bunt on a 101 mph offering, and Wilson looking at an 88 mph slider.
Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth, and closer Drew Storen got the last three outs for his 42nd save in 47 chances.
"It makes us feel really good and the other teams really scared," Clippard said of the trio of relievers. "They don't want to face Henry throwing 100 and so on and so forth."
NOTES: The team's total attendance for 2011 was 1,940,478. ... Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg will be on an innings limit next season, GM Mike Rizzo said. ... Washington wraps up the season with a three-game series at the Florida Marlins. LHP Tommy Milone - the Nationals are 4-0 in the rookie's four major league starts - will pitch Monday against Florida's Anibal Sanchez.