Justin Maxwell’s grand slam home run and John Lannan’s steady pitching led the Washington Nationals to a 4-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday in Atlanta. The victory was the second in a row for the otherwise struggling Nats, who are now headed to Philadelphia to take on the Phillies. Maxwell’s dinger came in the second inning off of Mike Minor and held up against a tough Braves’ line-up, as lefty John Lannan provided a steady six innings of work, striking out six. Maxwell’s grand slam was the talk of the clubhouse following the victory, with baseball afficianados pointing out that the otherwise light-hitting Maxwell has connected three of the four times he has come to the plate with the bases loaded. “I was just trying to put a ball in play, and it turned out that I got a pitch over the plate.” The Nationals will play in Philadelphia beginning on Thursday, with Jason Marquis matched up against Roy Oswalt in the first game of the series.
Beltway Bragging Rights: Can the “Fighting Showalters” (a BBTN descriptive that seems to have stuck), catch the D.C. Nationals in wins — and earn “beltway bragging rights” as the best team in the mid-Atlantic? It hardly seemed possible just two weeks ago, but now the Birds of Baltimore (mired in last place in the A.L East) are within four games of the Nats. The resurgent Orioles are 26-16 under their new manager, a mark that — were it April instead of September — would have found them in first place, staring back at the Yankees and Rays. Baseball pundits attribute most of this to Showalter, but a check of successive box scores shows that, were it not for the O’s pitching, the Little Orange Birds would have been nowhere.
The O’s win yesterday is a case in point: Brad Bergesen (who has been up-and-down between Baltimore and Triple-A all year) pitched the best game of his young career — throwing 95 pitches in nine innings while holding the Blue Jays to a single run. Bergesen is only one of the impressive young arms on Showalter’s staff, which boasts a gaggle of youngsters that have made the O’s one of baseball’s end-of-season feel good stories. In addition to Bergesen, Showalter has gotten solid starts from wunderkind Brian Matusz (who has provided four solid outings in his last six starts) and Jake Arrieta — whose ERA has dropped a full point since the end of July. A suddenly revived bullpen has helped: Koji Uehara seems to have finally found his place with the ball club (sporting a 2.48 ERA over the last ten games) and lefty free agent Michael Gonzalez (late of Atlanta), has finally shaken his injury bug.
The real key, however, may have been the arrival of linchpin second sacker Brian Roberts, who finally arrived at July’s end to provide the front-of-the-order spark the O’s needed. Roberts is one of those often overlooked players whose value only becomes apparent when they’re absent. But Roberts’ numbers over nine seasons in Baltimore show he’s one of the best lead-off men in the game. The real danger in Baltimore — and with the almost unbelievable run the Birds have had under Showalter — is that the Ripkens might conclude that the team they’ve fielded in August and September is their real team. That the only thing that the front office needs to do in the off-season is fine tune what they already have. But our bet is that both Bucky and Andy MacPhail (the head of Baltimore’s brain trust) are too smart to come to that conclusion. So, regardless of what the Orioles do the rest of the season, we can expect a huge turnover on both the pitching staff and the front nine. But if August and September are any indication, the Fighting Showalters will not only hang on to their young arms, they’ll make sure that they start the 2011 campaign with Brian Roberts at second base.