Washington is for real this season, and it can serve notice to the perennial powers in the National League East -- the Phillies -- by coming out and playing them tough again Saturday. Washington came back late and pushed ahead in extra innings Friday to earn its sixth straight win over Philadelphia, 4-3.
The signs of improvement are everywhere you look. Going back to last September, the Nationals have posted a winning record in back-to-back months for the first time since they relocated to D.C. in 2005, and their pitchers have allowed just nine home runs, by far the lowest total among all big league staffs.
Philadelphia, winners of the NL East in five straight seasons, hit two homers against the Nationals on Friday night and appeared to be in control for much of the game. The Phillies will hand the ball to Vance Worley in Saturday's middle act, and he'll be matched against Gio Gonzalez.
Worley has completed at least six innings in each of his first five starts this season, and he's managed to hold the opposition to one run or less four times. The 24-year-old right-hander is 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in his last three outings, and the Phillies have won in three of the five games he's started.
Washington can have the same type of confidence in Gonzalez, because it's taken a victory in four of his first five starts. Gonzalez has allowed three hits or less in each of his last four starts -- and just nine in his last 26 innings -- in his first season with Washington following an offseason trade with Oakland.
The Phillies led from the fourth inning until the eighth in the series opener, and Washington never held a lead until pinch-hitter Wilson Ramos plugged a game-winning RBI single with the bases loaded in the 11th. The Nationals have won seven of their first eight series, and can clinch another victory Saturday.
Philadelphia is now 12-3 when leading after the seventh inning. Friday's loss dropped the Phillies under .500 for the second time in three days, and they haven't had a winning record since beating the Pirates on Opening Day.
Phillies: Rollins the catalyst
The Phillies will need improved play from leadoff man Jimmy Rollins if they're going to turn things around against Washington. Philadelphia is 7-3 this season when Rollins scores, but he went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts on Friday night, and is now hitless in his last 20 at-bats against the Nationals.
Rollins, batting .228 for the season, had hit safely in six straight games prior to Friday night. The switch-hitter has struck out 21 times in 27 games this season, one year after whiffing 59 times in 142 games. Just three of his first 24 hits have gone for extra bases, and Rollins has walked six times.
Nationals: Harper having an effect
Bryce Harper may not have gotten a hit in Friday's victory, but he still provided a potent threat in the middle of Washington's lineup. The 19-year-old drew three free passes against the Phillies for the first multi-walk game of his career, and he now has as many walks (four) as strikeouts.
Harper, the top overall selection in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and one of the most heavily anticipated prospects in a generation, has hit safely in four of his first six big league games. Harper already has four doubles -- tied for fifth on the team -- and has driven in three runs.
After Washington's nine home runs allowed, the next-closest team has given up 17 homers.
The Nationals needed just 13 games to win their 10th game at home, the quickest in franchise history. Washington had never done it in less than 17 games before, and had once taken 29 home games to record its 10th win.
Philadelphia is just 3-8 in its last 11 games against Washington.