Nationals take a step in the right direction

When Stephen Strasburg reached the dugout after the eighth inning last night, Manager Davey Johnson shook his hand. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman slapped him on the backside. Shortstop Ian Desmond gave him such a fierce high five it could be heard from the upper deck.

Desmond was fired up, and not just because Strasburg had seemed to turn a corner in the Nationals’ 6-2 win. He had finally seen the Nationals play how he feels they should.

“That was how we play baseball,” Desmond said. “Hit a couple homers. Play good defense. Pitch well. We were rooting each other on the whole game. That was a huge step in the right direction. It’s got to start somewhere. We’ve been taking baby steps. I think that was a breath of fresh air as a whole unit right there.”

The Nationals still have a ways to go on offense, but Desmond was right – last night was a step in the right direction. They smacked seven hits, including Bryce Harper’s 431-foot moon shot to center and Adam LaRoche’s second homer in as many games, and drew five walks. They ended the night only a half-game out of first place, behind the idle Atlanta Braves.

“We’ve been hung up a lot of games on four or five hits and one or two runs,” LaRoche said. “There’s a reason why we’ve got guys in the middle of the lineup. Our job is to drive the ball and drive in runs.”

The middle of the Nationals’ order cannot be blamed for their recent skid. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche hit .226 and .136 in April. In May, they have improved, respectively, to .350 and .354. “Any time your middle-of-the-lineup aren’t swinging the bat well, it makes it harder,” Zimmerman said.

Desmond, meantime, has been overlooked in how consistently he has hit, finishing last night with a .503 slugging percentage despite a hitless game.  LaRoche has a 13-game hitting streak, a far cry from the 0-for-26 drought he suffered just a couple weeks ago.

“Back then, I knew it was a matter of time,” LaRoche said. “To be honest, I’m still not exactly where I want to be. I’ve been getting my hits, driving a couple balls the last couple days, but still missing some pitches. Not totally in the zone yet. Definitely getting there.”

The Nationals still have some pressing concerns in their lineup, most of all getting Danny Espinosa right. Johnson sat Espinosa last night in favor of Steve Lombardozzi, who went 1 for 4 with a bloop RBI single. Early Thursday afternoon, Johnson sat down with Espinosa for several minutes in his office, having a one-on-one conversation.

“Obviously, he’s not where he wants to be,” Johnson said. “I feel that he’s got a great chance to get there. A lot of times the approach you can take home plate can be mental. He’s very driven, like a lot of the guys here on this ball club. I think he’s trying to do too much. When you start trying to do too much, you can get in some bad habits. Mechanics can go a little bad.

“It was a good conversation. Hopefully it will lead to more conversations. I know a little about hitting. I know how hard it was. I know how we have a tendency to try more things than we should be trying. I think in his case, his will to really do well and really help this team, he’s trying to do too much. Hopefully, after relaxing and working on a few things, he’ll be fine.”

FROM THE POST

Stephen Strasburg came home, buckled down, went deep and won again in a 6-2 Nationals victory.

Let Bryce Harper play like Bryce Harper, Jason Reid writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Detwiler to have second MRI

Harper plays, meets Manziel

Detwiler to miss start, Ramos to DL

Selig working on MASN case

Nats not coming back

Harper feels terrible

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Columbus 4, Syracuse 2: Chris Marrero went 1 for 5 with a home run. Yunesky Maya allowed one run in seven innings on five hits and two walks, striking out five. Erik Davis struck out three and allowed three hits in two scoreless relief innings.

Harrisburg was off.

Potomac 7, Wilmington 4: Kevin Keyes went 2 for 3 with a home run and a walk. Justin Miller went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Adrian Sanchez went 2 for 4. Taylor Hill allowed two runs in six innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out five.

Hagerstown 10, Kannapolis 7: Shawn Pleffner went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk. Stephen Perez went 2 for 4 with a triple. Brandon Miller went 1 for 3 with a home run and two walks. Kylin Turnbull allowed two earned runs in four innings on seven hits and one walk, striking out three.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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Adam Kilgore · May 17, 2013