The Washington Nationals didn't go into the series finale with the Texas Rangers on Sunday afternoon blindly. In order to earn a sweep of the three-game Interleague set in the nation's capital, they knew they were going to have to beat one of the best pitchers in baseball. Matt Williams said as much after the Nats won the series with their 10-2 win on Saturday afternoon.
"We have a chance," the Nationals' first-year skipper said when asked about a potential sweep. "Pretty tough pitcher against us tomorrow, so we'll have to continue to do what we've done in the last couple of days against a really tough guy."
Before today's game, the former major league slugger was asked how he would have approached a pitcher like Rangers' right-hander Yu Darvish during his own playing days?
"For me it would be to choose a side of the plate as opposed to a pitch," Williams said, "because there are so many pitches. Sinking fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, curve, change, change in speeds on his curve ball. For me, I would go, 'There are six of them, so let's not try to hit all six, let's just pick a side of the plate I'm going to attack today, regardless of what pitch it is.' Get a ball either way or get a ball in and attack that way. Because he has so many pitches that you just can't try to follow all of them and hit all of them. So I think that would be my approach."
When Denard Span, who entered the game 3 for 4 with two doubles off Darvish in their respective careers, doubled on the second pitch the 29-year-old Rangers' starter threw, it looked for a minute like the Nationals' offense, which scored 19 runs in the first two games of the series, might just keep it up. Darvish stranded Span on third base three outs later, however, striking Wilson Ramos out to end the inning with the second of two two-strike sliders inside that buckled the Nats' catcher's knees.
After Darvish struck out the side in the second, for four consecutive Ks, Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, among others, marveled at the assortment of pitches the Rangers' righty was using to baffle the Nationals' hitters:
Four consecutive strikeouts for Darvish, which came on an 83-mph curve, a 95-mph fastball, a 77-mph curve and an 82-mph slider. Holy moly.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) June 1, 2014
After Span's leadoff double, Darvish retired 16 of the next 19 batters he faced before Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche managed back-to-back, one-out singles in the sixth that put runners on first and third.
Darvish got Ramos swinging for the second out of the sixth, throwing a 1-2 slider outside that the catcher chased, then got a fly to deep right from Ian Desmond that Rangers' right fielder Alex Rios caught on the track for the final out of Darvish's sixth scoreless inning.
The righty retired eight of the last nine batters he faced as the Rangers went up 2-0 on Tanner Roark and the Nationals.
Darvish's first start in the nation's capital in his three-year major league career ended after 8 IP in Nationals Park in which he struck out 12 batters while walking two and allowing just five hits. After earning the win today, he improved to (5-2) in 10 starts this season, with a 2.08 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 21 walks (2.73 BB/9) and 83 Ks (10.77 K/9) in 69 1/3 IP.
Williams was impressed with what he saw from the Rangers' ace. What impressed him the most about Darvish's dominant performance?
"The ability to throw all those pitches for strikes and add and subtract the fastball too," the first-year skipper said. "So when he needs to get to it he can get 96 [mph] or 97. So, good pitcher. Had some chances against him but we just couldn't capitalize on it."
With the loss, the Nationals dropped below .500 again at 27-28, but they took two of three from the Rangers and they have three more with the Phillies coming up before they head out on the road for a 10-game, three-city road trip to San Diego, San Francisco and St. Louis.
Luckily, they won't have to face Darvish again this season, unless...