WASHINGTON -- With a dreary forecast calling for constant rain, the series finale between the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins was called off early Sunday morning. The way the NL East leading Nationals having been winning tight games late, opponents probably wish all their contests could be called early.
During the now completed 10-game home stand, the Nationals won eight games with five coming by a single run, two in extra innings. In their two wins over the Marlins, dominant starting pitching locked down the opposition until the lineup found a way to deliver long ball power or scratch home a run.
"These two weeks, we had a lot of close games," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said following the announced postponement. "Extra innings, a bunch of one-run games. When the fire is hot, it makes the metal harder. This many (close games) early and coming out of it is a good sign about the makeup of the team."
As for the strength of this maturing team, clearly it lies on the mound. Entering Sunday, the Nationals 2.34 team ERA ranks first in baseball -- and the starting rotation has been even better.
On Saturday, the Marlins put runners into scoring position against Strasburg in the fourth, fifth and sixth inning, but the visitors could not score.
The dominant right-hander extended a scoreless streak by Washington's starting pitchers to 16 innings and lowered his ERA to 1.08 in his second outing of the year without allowing a run.
Though the Marlins tied the game in the ninth against Nationals closer Brad Lidge, Washington used a 10th inning leadoff single, a Miami throwing error and a sacrifice fly to eke out another win.
"It's awesome. The season's still young, but we've pulled the close ones out," Strasburg said after his no-decision. "Definitely, there's no sense of panic when we get into that situation."
"They're pitching is night and day compared to the way it used to be," Murphy said. "One or two runs and that ends up being all they need."
It will be the first time that shortstop Jose Reyes will face his former team since joining the Marlins as a free agent in the offseason.
The Nationals will take their National League East-leading 12-4 record on a West Coast swing next week, starting with a three-game series against the Padres. Johnson said he'd maintain his current pitching rotation with left-hander Gio Gonzalez starting Tuesday followed by right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson.
"It does seem like once we get to the later innings I think everybody has confidence that something is going to happen," said Ankiel, Friday's hitting hero.
The Nationals centerfielder gave Detwiler an early lead with a solo home run in third inning. In the eighth inning, he provided the bullpen a touch more breathing room by doubling and scoring an insurance run in the 2-0 win.
"Either we get a guy on and get him in or somebody is going to hit a homer. Fortunately for us, it's been happening that way," Ankiel said.
Despite having never finished with a better than .500 record since the franchise relocated to the nation's capital in 2005, the Nationals were a sneaky division champion pick during spring training. Maybe the team even believed an NL East crown -- or beyond -- was possible. As the wins -- late or otherwise -- mount, each success builds on itself.
"It really validates we are a pretty good team," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Not just all the talk, not just guys in spring training thinking we're a pretty good team. Now it's starting to be like reality. This team is legit. It rubs off on everybody."
With this winning and confidence-building formula, the Nationals are a sleeper pick no more.