Bullpen, clutch hits lead Nats to 'Twin' bill victory

Bullpen, clutch hits lead Nats to 'Twin' bill victory

Bullpen, clutch hits lead Nats to 'Twin' bill victory

WASHINGTON -- Rafael Soriano untucks his shirt after every save. But after Sunday's split doubleheader against the Twins, the scene of the Nationals closer ripping his jersey from his waist was particularly fitting.

The Nationals played more than six hours of baseball on Sunday, recording 24 hits, 12 runs and a handful of defensive gems. But at the end of a long, hard day, only one number mattered: two, as in the number of games the Nationals had won after a 5-4, come-from-behind victory in the nightcap.

"When I see signs of better approaches, more aggressive [hitting] -- that's the way you win ballgames," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We're relaxing and we've got tomorrow off. And boy do we need it."

The Nationals cruised in Game 1, pounding out five runs in the fifth inning to follow Jordan Zimmermann's stellar outing to a 7-0 win. The second game unfolded much differently, but the result was the same.

In a game that lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours and featured a 12-minute rain delay, the Nationals stayed within striking distance and sneaked ahead in the seventh inning. Adam LaRoche raced to a one-out double, sliding headfirst into second base, before Ian Desmond hit a double of his own to bring home the winning run.

The Nationals came back from a three-run deficit on Sunday for the first time all season.

"It was a good feeling when you're behind and you keep chipping away, you don't give up. This was probably our best ballgame," center fielder Denard Span said. "Normally early on in the season when we would get behind, we would just fold and give away at-bats. [Today] we just kept fighting and having good at-bats."

Span missed Game 1 of the doubleheader after fouling a ball off his foot on Saturday night, but he came back strong in Game 2. Playing against his former team for just the second time, Span smoked a triple into the right-field corner in the sixth inning to tie the game at 4. The man who scored that run, second baseman Anthony Rendon, also saved a run in the top of the inning.

With a 4-3 lead and two outs in the sixth, Twins third baseman Jamey Carroll hit a screamer above Rendon's head. Eduardo Escobar, who was on third after a leadoff triple, started running home. Rendon, who played in just his fourth game since being recalled from Triple-A Syracuse earlier in the week, leaped and made an acrobatic catch to end the inning.

"He doesn't talk much," Span said of Rendon. "But [with] his play today and his play so far … his presence was known. You felt it."

Starter Nathan Karns was pulled after just three innings in the shortest start of his first Major League stint. He gave up four runs on five hits while walking three and striking out two. Karns also gave up a two-run shot to shortstop Pedro Florimon, the fifth home run he has allowed in 12 innings with the Nationals.

"You can't keep putting on one or two runners every inning and expect to come out with zeros," Karns said. "I fell behind, they took advantage and when you keep doing that, they're going to break through. And that's what they did."

It started in the second inning, when the Twins drew back-to-back walks and capitalized on them with a two-out, two-RBI double by Chris Herrmann. Minnesota tacked on two more runs in the third when Florimon's homer landed in the right-field seats, chasing Karns from the game at the end of the inning.

In most doubleheaders, an early exit by a starting pitcher is worrisome. But thanks to seven strong innings from Zimmermann in Game 1, Johnson had a solid stable of relievers to choose from in the nightcap. Craig Stammen, Erik Davis, Fernando Abad, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Soriano combined to allow just three hits over six scoreless innings.

"We threw just about everything we possibly could at them," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We thought we hit it better than the runs out on the board, but it didn't come out that way."

The Nationals' defense also showed some life on Sunday night. LaRoche made a pair of backhanded stops at first base, including an unassisted double play in the seventh inning, and Span's on-target throw after a fly ball in the first inning kept the Twins off the board early.

"It was a good game all-around," Desmond said. "Hitting's always up and down, but pitching and defense have to be there for us to win the games that we expect ourselves to. We're taking steps in the right direction, and today was a huge step."

With a pair of much-needed wins on Sunday, the Nationals returned to .500 (31-31) and moved back into second place in the National League East. A three-city road trip looms, but so do the healthy returns of a few important players, including starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler and possibly outfielder Bryce Harper.

But all of that, Desmond said, is for another day. On Sunday night, the Nationals overcame a rough start on the mound, picked up their 11th come-from-behind victory of the season and untucked their shirts on the way out, a fitting end to a long but satisfying day.

Tom Schad is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Schad. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.