The good and the bad
The Nats keep plugging away despite another potential setback for right-hander Stephen Strasburg.
Apparently, the Fourth of July, the exact midpoint of the Nationals’ season, is a synopsis of how it’s going to be for Washington this year. Something wonderful. Something rotten. Opportunity for the meek of the earth, but trips to the disabled list for stars, one after another. Enjoy the best, fight through the rest. Try to gather the band together, all healthy, at a date still to be determined.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to enjoy a team that, before a morning-start crowd of 40,029, clubbed the champion San Francisco Giants, 9-3, for its 14th win in 20 games.
Michael A. Taylor, Yunel Escobar and Bryce Harper greeted World Series hero Madison Bumgarner with a homer, a 400-foot double and another homer in the first five pitches as standing fans used hands and voices as fireworks.
Before the battering ended, Harper had a walk, single, double, homer— everything you can do except hit a triple— and had his batting average up to .344, his homers up to 25 (a pace for 50) and saw his OPS climb back to 1.189.
Who did the rest of the damage? The Nats got two walks, four singles, four doubles and a home run from Tyler Moore (four RBI), Clint Robinson, Taylor, Escobar and Danny Espinosa. They’re the combination of bench brigade, the second-tier starters and the AAA call-ups who have saved them all year.
But wide blue-skies smiles never seem to last long for these Nats. Before the fourth inning was over, Stephen Strasburg, pitching as powerfully as he ever has in his last two starts, walked off the mound with a tweak in his left ribcage. It could be an oblique injury and a month on the disabled list or nothing much at all.
“Pretty tight,” he said, disgustedly. “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s what athletes say when they’re so mad they want to break rooms.
For the Nats this year, it always seems to be either homer-double-homer off Bumgarner on five pitches or another top player shaking his head that his body has betrayed him. “I really feel bad for Stephen. He works so hard,” said Tanner Roark— the starting pitcher, long and middle reliever, setup man and (once) closer— who threw 61 pitches, got the win and will now ask for his next assignment.
On the same day Strasburg left his team feeling worried, the entire Nats pitching staff set a record in the Lively Ball Era back to 1920. They’re the first team to go 17 games without walking more than two men in a game.
The Nats break records, they pitch no-hitters, they miss perfect games with one strike left to go and they lead a pathetic division by four games. They’re on pace for 90 wins despite everything.
Las Vegas has watched the Nats’ rotation act dominant recently just as its offense moves up to third in the NL in scoring despite an often unrecognizable lineup. Suddenly, the Nats are back to co-favorite to win the World Series at 7-to-1. It’s encouraging when money has faith in you. But please forgive the Nats; they just feel like they’re constantly bailing more and more water.
The Nats’ projected No. 2, 3 and 5 hitters, Anthony Rendon (quad), Ryan Zimmerman (foot) and Jayson Werth (wrist) are all still on the disabled list. And none of them even has a vague date for their return. Check back after the All-Star Game, if then. Bumgarner has as many homers (two) as Rendon and Werth. Remember that when you catch yourself saying, “They’re only on a 90win pace.”
“We want to flush all that bad stuff out [of our minds],” said Moore, who drove in four runs with a single and two doubles. “We want to see them back as soon as they can. But I think we [from the bench] are doing a decent job. We’re going to keep rolling.”
The most fascinating subtext of this series has been the prickly matchup between Harper, who had three homers and a double in the division series last year against San Francisco, and Giants Manager Bruce Bochy. On Friday night, Bochy intentionally walked Harper in the first inning, a message that “we’re going to frustrate you all series.” But after Harper’s third straight walk of the night, Clint Robinson homered— the result a 2-1 Nats win. So how did the walks work out?
By the seventh inning, with the Nats ahead 6-1, Harper was having his way, doubling off the right field scoreboard. Bochy and the Giants tried a trick that one Nat said, “I haven’t seen since Pony League.” While shortstop Brandon Crawford, a buddy of Harper’s, engaged him in conversation, center fielder Gregor Blanco raced 50 yards to duck behind Harper for a pick-off throw at second base. Coaches screamed, Harper barely got back, then said afterward that “time was out” anyway, so the whole thing was irrelevant.
But the trick play, while smart, was also a barely veiled attempt to show up Harper in a national TV game as a still-raw star who could be suckered. In the next half-inning, it was “et tu, Blanco.” Ian Desmond grabbed a grounder in the shortstop hole, faked a throw to first, then raced to catch Blanco by inches as he rounded third base too far.
Minutes later, Bochy used a shift on Harper, with no one playing third base that is always intended to get in a hitter’s head. They want me to alter my style to slap a ground ball single to left. Should I? What if I fail? Will I look stupid?
Harper, almost casually, slapped the perfect hit to left as if he could do it in his sleep. “I hope they keep doing it because it means more hits. If you’re going to hit .300, you have to do [everything] you can do,” said Harper, who then praised Bochy and the Giants for any number of wonderful qualities and feats. Right.
For now, it’s Harper, Max Scherzer and an Assortment of Others, like Taylor, Moore, Espinosa and Robinson, who taken together probably are replacing three-quarters of the production of Werth, Rendon and Zimmerman. But all the Nats, like the also-banged up Giants, are playing for a time, months from now, when the stakes are much higher and both teams, healthier, may face each other once more.
“This shows how deep we are in the minors, in scouting and pitching,” Harper said of the Nats’ resilience. “It makes you excited— for October and beyond that.”
What’s “beyond” October, Bryce? Oh, late October— when the Giants are often still playing, but the Nats never have.
Between these teams, the byplay, the needles, the paybacks, are building. They’re eyeing each other. Watch out, the center fielder may be gaining on you.
Washington’s TylerMoore doubles home two runs in the sixth.