The Washington Nationals used strong starting pitching in the first half of the season to jump into first place in the N.L. East, looking to be true contenders in the division for the first time since the inaugural year they relocated to the District from Montreal in 2005. Now that the hitters are starting to contribute on a more consistent basis, the Nats are reeling off enough wins to earn mentions as the best team in baseball, which — for a few hours on Wednesday, at least — they were.
By virtue of the Nats 5-2 win over the hapless and reeling New York Mets, a Washington MLB team held the best record in the big leagues. At least, until the New York Yankees play the Seattle Mariners later in the day.
The Nats record moves to 58-39, 19 games over .500 for the first time since July 5, 2005, in the first season the team called D.C. home.
We all know how that team went 50-31 in the first half of that season, only to go 31-50 in the second half and settle for an even record for the season. That team was filled with veteran players, journeymen and pitchers of varying pedigrees. Today’s version is built mostly on home-grown young talent and a pitching staff of truly dominant starters. In other words — serious contenders.
Perhaps the most dominant of those young arms, Stephen Strasburg, did his thing again on the mound Wednesday. He struck out 11 in seven innings, allowing one run — an Ike Davis homer in the second inning. He gave up three other base hits and did not allow a free pass. Manager Davey Johnson allowed him to pitch seven innings on 94 pitches, 63 of which were strikes.
The scary thing about Strasburg (11-4, 2.76) is that he’s still in the rehabilitation phase of his Tommy John surgery, a fact that gets lost on fans and media — local and national. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and hair-pulling about Strasburg’s innings limit this season and the inevitable shutdown smack in the middle of a pennant race. But GM Mike Rizzo has been steadfast that he won’t sacrifice Strasburg’s career for the sake of this season’s pennant, and he’s prudent in that decision. Strasburg is still building arm strength, recovering his impeccable command and control, just like Jordan Zimmermann did last season.
Zimmermann has been nothing short of brilliant this season now that the shackles are off. The Nats expect the same from Strasburg next season. Only Strasburg has more talent than even Zimmermann. Wednesday’s result from Strasburg should become commonplace next season, not the exception.
Strasburg was supported in the win by three home runs from the 4-5-6 hitters in the lineup. Michael Morse hit his seventh, an opposite field shot, and Danny Espinosa his ninth, an upper tank bomb, both off Mets starter Jeremy Hefner (L, 1-4, 5.40) in the second inning. Adam LaRoche added his 18th, a two-run blast, off lefty reliever Tim Byrdak in the seventh inning.
Espinosa is hitting .350 (14-for-40) in his last 10 games with two homers, seven RBIs and eight runs scored.
Despite another shaky appearance from reliever Henry Rodriguez (walked both batters he faced), the Nats bullpen managed to keep the Mets at bay, including Drew Storen striking out David Wright again with runners on in the eighth. And Tyler Clippard did what he’s done almost all year, pitching a perfect ninth inning for his 18th save.
THE GOOD: Obviously, Strasburg. We’ve been through this a million and one times, but strikeouts don’t drive pitch counts, walks and base runners do. And since Strasburg limited opposing base runners to a grand total of four Wednesday, he was able to throw 95 pitches and get through the seventh inning in dominant fashion. Next year, Nats fans, Strasburg will be sent back out for the eighth inning. Next year.
THE BAD: Ryan Zimmerman had a rough day, going 0-for-5 with a K and stranding four.
THE UGLY: Henry Rodriguez. He’s never thrown strikes in his career and hasn’t learned yet this season. That stretch in spring training was a mirage — he can’t control his talent. Davey is trying to use him in low-leverage situations, but he just turns those situations into headaches. He’s got to go.
THE STATS: 7 hits, 4 walks, 8 Ks. 1-for-9 with RISP, 7 LOB, 0 GIDP. No errors, 1 DP.
NEXT GAME: Thursday, July 26 at Milwaukee at 8:10 pm. Edwin Jackson (5-6, 3.73) faces Yovanni Gallardo (8-7, 3.72).