The good and the bad

The Nats keep plug­ging away de­spite another po­ten­tial set­back for right-han­der Stephen Stras­burg.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell thomas.boswell@wash­ For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­

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.

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