There was no denying it. Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, who carried his team at the plate through the first six weeks of the season, was in a slump.
With just six hits in 49 at-bats entering Wednesday's game against the New York Mets, LaRoche began taking extra batting practice to pinpoint the problem. In the end, it could be any number of issues with his swing. But sometimes searching too hard can leave a player even more lost.
So LaRoche needed a night like Wednesday. He singled, hit a home run and a sacrifice fly and drove in four of Washington's five runs in a 5-3 victory over New York at Nationals Park. It was his second four-RBI game of the year.
"The most frustrating part, like last year, is you're not helping your team win games - whether it's leaving runners on base or not scoring runs," said LaRoche, who could barely function last April and May with a sore shoulder that eventually required surgery. "As far as long-term goals on the year, I know the numbers will be there. But you never want to go through a slump. Obviously, hits have been hard to come by the last few weeks. So hopefully this is the start of a hot streak."
The Nats (32-22) took the first two of this three-game series against the Mets and go for the sweep on Thursday afternoon. They are now two games ahead of Atlanta (31-25) and Miami (31-25) in the National League East and a whopping six games ahead of five-time defending division champion Philadelphia (28-30).
Knowing New York's bullpen has been depleted - Jon Rauch is back home getting tests on his ailing elbow, but remains on the active roster - Washington wanted to put some early pressure on starter Jeremy Hefner. It did so when Bryce Harper reached on an error with one out in the first inning, Ryan Zimmerman walked and LaRoche homered over the wall in right field for an early 3-0 advantage. It was the second day in a row the Nats were up by that score.
But just like Tuesday, the Mets crawled back into the game one run at a time. In the fourth inning David Wright laced a single to right. He went all the way to third base on an errant pickoff throw by Washington starter Edwin Jackson and then scored on a routine ground ball by teammate Lucas Duda. That cut the lead to 3-2.
"Except for his throws to first - and he assured me after the game that he doesn't have a problem with that - he was exceptional," Nats manager Davey Johnson said of Jackson, who earned just his second win of the season despite a 3.17 ERA entering the contest. He hasn't received much run support from his teammates.
Washington added a run in the fifth when Michael Morse drove a ball into right for a single to score Zimmerman and make it 4-2. But New York (31-26) answered right back off Jackson in the top of the seventh. A leadoff double by Ike Davis - a player batting .160 entering the game - started the rally. Davis had earlier walked twice. He was pushed to third on a ground out to second base and scored on another one by Omar Quintanilla. That closed the gap again to a single run.
Both starters were in fine form all night. Jackson lasted seven innings to give his own team's bullpen a rest after a 12-inning win on Tuesday. He threw 100 pitches, allowing two earned runs on three hits - though he did walk four batters. Jackson struck out six. Meanwhile, Hefner tossed six innings with 99 pitches. He gave up three earned runs on seven hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
In the bottom of the seventh a leadoff walk to Steve Lombardozzi and a single by Harper set the table for another one-run inning. Lombardozzi advanced to third on a pop out to the first baseman, Davis, who caught the ball in shallow right field. Lombardozzi then scored on LaRoche's sacrifice fly.
The Nats' bullpen did the rest. Sean Burnett retired New York in order in the eighth and Tyler Clippard shook off a leadoff walk in the ninth and a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty to finish the game and earn his fifth consecutive save. The memory of last week's disappointing sweep by the Marlins in Miami is fading as Washington has won three of its last four games. Only once have the Nats had a significant losing streak - five games between April 26 and May 1.
"We've got probably the best pitching staff in baseball so I think that has a lot to do with it," Clippard said. "You're going to have your lulls in a baseball season. But when you have the pitching staff that we do, no matter what kind of lulls you're in you're going to pitch your way through some wins."