In the two games since his return, Bryce Harper has not been transcendent at the plate, but he sure seems to have inspired his teammates.
The Washington Nationals (45-38) controlled all phases of the game today, reaching base 17 times and giving up just one run, as Stephen Strasburg tossed an amazing 7.2 innings against the Colorado Rockies (36-48) and led his team to an easy 7-1 win.
Though they did most of their damage early, the Nats’ final offensive line was impressive. They scored seven runs on ten hits and seven walks, striking out only six times. High pitch counts forced Colorado to use five different pitchers, as the Rockies threw a total of 172 pitches in their eight defensive innings.
With ample run support, an unfamiliar feeling for the ace, Strasburg (W, 7-6) cruised. Through seven innings, he had given up just four hits and walked nobody, earning him a rare opportunity to pitch the eighth despite throwing 94 pitches already. A tired Strasburg was off his game then, giving up a home run to DJ LeMahieu and walking Corey Dickerson, but still finished with an outstanding line: 7.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K.
After the game, manager Matt Williams had high praise for his starter. “He was focused,” he said. “He was throwing it where he wanted to throw it … I thought he pitched really well.”
On the offensive side of things, the onslaught began early and did not let up. Rockies starter Christian Friedrich (L, 0-3) walked the first two batters he faced, and Jayson Werth smacked a two-run double as the third to put the Nats on top before they made an out. After an infield single from Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman hit a sacrifice fly to drive Werth in and put the Nats ahead 3-0.
The Nats got baserunners in the second and third innings, but could not break through again until the fourth. They drove Friedrich from the game with a pair of hits, and knocked four more against reliever Chad Bettis to score four runs, two of which Friedrich bore.
The Rockies starter’s line was ugly: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 3 K. He entered the game with an ugly 8.10 ERA, but left it with a hideous 9.45 mark. Bettis, who gave up two runs the fourth, would finish the night with two earned runs allowed in two innings, which actually lowered his ERA from 10.05 to 9.92. Suffice it to say, pitching at Coors can do terrible things to your statistics.
The Nats’ skipper attributed his team’s recent offensive success to an abundance of opportunities, coupled with a better job of converting those opportunities.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities with guys in scoring position and guys have come through,” he said.
Like last night, Zimmerman shone the most of the two mittened brothers. At the plate, Zimmerman was 2-for-3 with a walk and a sacrifice fly, while Harper was just 1-for-5 and struck out three times. Zimmerman continued his fielding renaissance as well, making a couple of nice plays at the hot corner. While his throws, now overhand, still lack the zip they once had, their targeting has been solid so far this season.
Zimmerman also had a chance to show off his defensive versatility. When the game was no longer in question in the eighth, Zimmerman was switched over to first base when Williams pulled Adam LaRoche. He handled his third position well, stretching to catch a throw and make an out at first.
Series win in hand, the Nats remain half a game behind the Atlanta Braves, who looked like they may have been done after splitting a series at Nats Park and leaving 38-37, but have won eight of nine since, including six straight. Of course, this stretch comes against a cupcake schedule of the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Mets, but it counts in the standings all the same. Tomorrow the Nats will gun for the sweep, looking to keep pace with their divisional rivals.