Davey Johnson’s announcement that Stephen Strasburg will make two more starts this year will dominate tomorrow’s coverage. That’s too bad, because the Nationals and Cardinals played a whale of a game this afternoon. Strasburg dominated for six innings, staked to a lead by Kurt Suzuki’s suddenly hot bat. After he left, they scrambled, clawed and held on for dear life.
“I’m glad those boys are getting out of town,” Manager Davey Johnson said, a 3-1 series victory over the Cardinals in his back pocket.
In the end, the Nationals did not waste Strasburg’s dominance in one of his final starts this season, scratching out a 4-3 victory. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa smacked consecutive RBI singles in the seventh inning to give the Nationals the lead, capping a rally that formed out of nothing – four straight hits after Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play.
The game included the unsettling sight, for the second time this series, of Ryan Zimmerman sailing an awkward throw over the first baseman. In the fourth inning, Allen Craig ripped a two-hopper one step to Zimmerman’s left. The play forced to make a transition between fielding and throwing, and Craig’s speed left him time. The combination for Zimmerman has become a recipe for concern and a reason to cringe.
Zimmerman set himself to throw and launched a looping heave. First baseman Chad Tracy started scampering backward as it left Zimmerman’s hand. The ball bounced landed at the base of the tarp along the fence next to the Nationals’ dugout. Zimmerman’s ninth throwing error this season put Craig on second base.
The inning devolved when Strasburg walked David Freese and a wild pitch on ball four sent Craig to third. The miscues only led to the most exciting moment you can find at Nationals Park: A runner crouching on third base, a ball in the air and Harper settling under it, his feet pumping like the needles of a sewing machine.
Brett Anderson flied to shallow right-center field. As the ball smacked into the webbing of Harper’s glove, Craig bolted home. Harper rifled the ball home, his form out of an instructional video. The ball skipped once, and Suzuki made a slick play to corralled it on a short hop and tag out Craig.
“What I was impressed about that throw was he didn’t try to airmail it all the way,” Johnson said. “When he first got here, that would’ve been all the way in the air. He actually had a chance to hit the cutoff man there, which is outstanding. But he has a great arm, charged the ball well and he didn’t have to look up. He knew he was going home all the way.”
On his way off the mound, Strasburg pointed his glove at Harper, an acknowledgement from one first overall pick to another. Suzuki pumped his first as he hopped back to the dugout.
The Nationals led, 2-0, when Strasburg left. But the Cardinals struck in the seventh. Daniel Descalso ripped a two-run homer off Sean Burnett over the right field fence, trying the score and prolonging Burnett’s rough patch. Burnett had also allowed a game-tying run Saturday. Of the past 35 batters he’s faced, he has retired only 18.
He threw 20 pitches Saturday, and on Sunday he only threw his sinker at 88 and 89 miles per hour, a tick down from his usual velocity. Johnson did not have a concern about that, though.
“He hasn’t had a lot of work here,” Johnson said. “A sinker baller really thrives on more work, the ball sinks better. His delivery, I get a little more worried when he gets up in the 91 range. I’m comfortable when he pitches 89-90. But I went to the whip on him, I worked him and he was unbelievably good against left, right, I don’t care whatever. He usually went clean. He might need a little blow. I’ve had him the last two games, I might give him a couple days off to regroup. Sometimes you catch a hot-hitting club, but he’s been exceptional. I’m not worried about over-pitching him.”
Sunday, Burnett’s struggles only set up an immediate response. With two outs, Michael Morse rolled a single to right. Chad Tracy, subbing for Adam LaRoche, smacked one of his two hits. With Morse on second, Johnson sent call-up Eury Perez to pinch-run for Morse.
Perez, 22, is the second-youngest player on the team and perhaps the fastest. He showed both qualities. With one strike on Desmond, Perez took off to steal third. Desmond swing at an eye-high fastball to protect him from being thrown out. The steal was wholly ill-advised – with his speed, Perez would have scored on most any hit.
Desmond shook off the two strikes and whacked a line-drive single to center field off Lance Lynn. Perez sprinted home with the go-ahead run. Espinosa followed with his third hit, scoring Tracy. Espinosa raised his average to .253 with an outstanding weekend – he also drilled a crucial homer Saturday, his 16th of the year.
Espinosa also added the game’s final highlight. Ryan Mattheus yielded an RBI double in the eighth inning to slash the lead to one. Tyler Clippard finally restored order in the Nationals’ bullpen with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, his 29th save. But he could not have done it without Espinosa.
With one out in the ninth, Skip Schumaker rolled a grounder to the hole in the right side. Espinosa had been shaded toward the base, and when Clippard noticed his positioning, “I wasn’t sure.” But Espinosa scooped the ball and run, twisted his body and made a strong, sidearm throw. The game-tying run had been kept off the bases, and the Nationals would win one inning later.
“That was a huge out for us,” Clippard said.