The Nationals used their 8-1 romp over the St. Louis Cardinals to hammer home how much more they have than Strasburg. Start with Jackson, who recorded 10 strikeouts and allowed four hits in eight innings against the team with which he won last year’s World Series. The Nationals also have Werth, surging as a leadoff hitter atop a lineup that has regained its swagger. And they have Bryce Harper, who at 19 has managed to come out the other side of a two-month slump leaving vapor trails in all corners of Nationals Park.
Harper sparked the Nationals’ offense with a two-run homer in the first inning, a laser into the home bullpen, his third home run in two games. He later added a sweet RBI single and a running, over-the-shoulder catch in center. He batted behind Werth, who clobbered his first home run since coming back from a broken wrist, one of three times he reached base.
The victory, the second straight night the Nationals swatted 13 hits, put to bed the angst from their five-game losing streak and gave the Nationals an edge over a potential postseason foe. The defending champions entered Thursday with the best run differential in the major leagues, having outscored opponents by 113 runs. In their first meeting of the season, the Nationals smothered them with power on the mound and thunder at the plate.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” Jackson said. “It’s not the first good team that we’ve played. We’ve played a lot of good teams this season. Everyone in here knows we’re capable of winning any game against team at any given chance.”
Harper was the catalyst. In the first inning, Harper came to the plate with Werth on base after a leadoff walk against Jaime Garcia. Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein and Johnson had implored Harper to keep his feet still, to not hack so hard his center of gravity shifts, to control his sound-barrier bat speed. The way for him to start hitting home runs was to stop trying.
“He’s all-in, all the time,” Johnson said. “But he’s gotten a little calmer with his lower half. He kind of can get real aggressive with his lower half, and he’s calmed down quite a bit.”
It worked Wednesday night, when he became the third teenager to launch two homers in one game. Thursday, he took two balls. Garcia threw him a 90-mph fastball over the outside. Harper waited, then unleashed his effortless and fierce hack. His feet barely moved, his hands rifling the bat through the zone.
“I just try to work as hard as I can up there and try to get a pitch I can drive,” Harper said. “I just try to stay within myself and play good ball.”