Yanks teach Nats a few lessons

Ivan Nova of the New York Yankees pitches Ivan Nova of the New York Yankees pitches against the Washington Nationals. (June 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

WASHINGTON

After the Yankees finished sweeping his club out of Nationals Park like a pile of peanut shells with Sunday's 4-1 victory, Davey Johnson climbed behind a microphone, pulled in his chair and waited for the first question.

The interview began with someone wishing him a happy Father's Day. "Yeah," Johnson said, forcing a weak smile, "it was a wonderful Father's Day."

To borrow a favorite phrase from Pedro Martinez, the Nationals spent the sunny D.C. afternoon with their daddies, and that dynamic probably won't change anytime soon. For all the talk of this being a statement series for Bryce Harper and Co., it was the Yankees -- winners of nine straight -- who delivered their usual message. Better luck next time, kid.

"We feel good about the way we're playing," Joe Girardi said. "As far as making a statement, we worry more about how we play against clubs in our own division more than anything else."

Speaking of the American League East, the Nationals had treated the Red Sox and Blue Jays like pencil-armed sparring partners earlier in the week by sweeping both on the road. That's what made the Yankees appear to be the next domino to fall, especially with the Nationals getting to host in front of what was anticipated to be sellout crowds.

They got their sellouts, but far too many of those fans were clad in pinstripes -- and, like typical New Yorkers, they weren't shy about expressing their loyalty. Loudly and often. It got so bad Sunday that Ivan Nova tipped his cap to the crowd as he walked off the field in the eighth inning.

Nova wasn't trying to taunt Nationals fans. He was just acknowledging the cheers, as if he were in the Bronx. The Yankees played like it, too, with Curtis Granderson swatting his 21st homer into the rightfield bullpen and Robinson Cano crushing No. 12 high over Harper's head in center.

As for Harper, this weekend's brush with greatness taught him a thing or two about growing up fast in the majors. After refusing to talk with the media in the immediate wake of Saturday's 0-for-7 misery, which included five strikeouts, Harper bounced back with two hits in the finale. He would have had three if not for a brilliant, barehanded scoop-and-throw by the acrobatic Cano.

This time Harper resisted the urge to slam his bat on the plate or jaw with the umpire, as he did during Saturday's fits of seething frustration. Asked about his disastrous introduction to Andy Pettitte, Harper said, "You just tip your cap to the veteran Hall of Famer on the bump."

That was the respect a 19-year-old rookie should be showing to his elders in the game, but the Nationals weren't about to bow down to the Yankees in any other regard. To a man, they recited how close each game was and how a number of little things decided the outcomes. The Yankees outscored the Nats 16-6 in the series, but they did need 14 innings to win Saturday.

"I didn't see a whole lot of difference," Johnson said. "I think we match up good with anybody. We got to do things we're capable of doing -- nothing more, nothing less. You need 25 guys to win. It's that simple."

The Yankees, one of the deepest teams in baseball, benefit from that on a daily basis. But the Nationals got almost nothing this weekend from No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who went 1-for-13 and is batting .229 with a .323 slugging percentage. Not what the Nats had in mind with that $100-million extension, but that void has not kept them from sitting atop the NL East.

"We're in first place for a reason," Michael Morse said. "We battled our butts off all year and we're going to keep doing that."

Here's one thing the Nationals should take away from the weekend sweep: Close doesn't count. As the Yankees well know, baseball is a bottom-line business, and ultimately nobody cares if one pitch or one bounce decides a game. The only thing that matters is who wins, and the Yankees continue to be very good at finding a way.

"It's not October yet," Harper said. "That's how you look at it."

If the Nationals make it there, we'll see how much they've learned.

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