San Diego Padres' starter James Shields threw a total of 51 pitches in the first three innings of last night's series opener in the nation's capital. In Shields' last two-plus innings of work, the veteran right-hander threw 70 pitches, 30 in the fourth, 29 in the fifth and 11 more in the sixth before he was knocked out with two down.
Washington fell behind 2-0 early when Jedd Gyorko took Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg deep in the first, but the Nats rallied to tie it on a home run to left by Wilson Ramos in the second, took the lead on an RBI double by Yunel Escobar in the third, added to their lead on an RBI double by Ian Desmond in the fifth and blew it open when Ryan Zimmerman hit a grand slam on a 2-0 fastball from Bud Norris after the Nationals knocked Shields out.
Matt Williams talked after the game about the "grind at bats" the Nationals were able to put together, running Shields' pitch count up to a season-high 121 and working counts throughout what ended up an 8-3 win.
"When our guys are seeing the baseball well, we get those at bats," the second-year skipper told reporters.
"Especially from the top of our order guys. Denard [Span] went full and walked. So did Jayson [Werth]. It just extends innings for us and ups the pitch count of the opposing pitcher. Gives us opportunity. So, good grind at bats tonight."
The Nationals put runners on in every inning Shields was on the mound, sending six batters to the plate in three of six innings, putting pressure on throughout the game and setting themselves up with the multiple opportunities to score runs as Stephen Strasburg shut the Padres down after giving up the home run early.
"It's opportunity," Williams said, reiterating what he's said repeatedly over his two seasons on the bench in D.C.
"If you get a base hit in that situation it means multiple runs. So, those big run innings are a product of those good at bats and having guys out there."
It also helps to have the likes of Span, Werth, Anthony Rendon and Zimmerman back in the lineup, which gave the Nationals an opportunity to put their expected everyday lineup out on the field for the first time in 124 games.
Getting Werth, and Span, in particular, back, meant that Michael Taylor got a night off for the first time in months.
Williams talked about what the addition of the 31-year-old veteran outfielder meant to the lineup.
"I can say this, we're glad to have [Span] back," he explained. "Michael has done a fantastic job and he will continue to get opportunity on a day-to-day basis. Denard is a left-handed hitter, which evens out our lineup a little bit.
"We're able to move Bryce [Harper] down a little bit and stick a couple righties in-between those two. So, another left-handed hitter helps our lineup for sure because we're heavily right-handed. And he's a pro, he knows what he's doing."
Span is back. Werth, Rendon and Zimmerman are heating up and grinding out at bats.
"I think our guys offensively that have come back are starting to feel their stroke and their timing better," Williams said.
"That adds to more runs per game certainly. The grind at bats we talked about. Having guys out there and putting together stressful innings for the opposition is important to us. All of those things combined help us to win games."
The Nationals' win last night was their third straight, giving them three in-a-row for the first time since mid-July.
Unfortunately for the Nats, the NL East-leading New York Mets won their fifth straight last night, so Washington remains 5.5 games out in the division with 38 games left to play.