This season, Jackson has become accustomed to being overlooked. The firepower at the top of the Nationals’ rotation, the youthful brilliance of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, often overshadows Jackson. But Jackson, 28, with his 3.02 ERA and plowhorse attitude, has kept the pace, undaunted by the performances ahead of him in the majors’ best rotation.
“I think if anything, it pushes him,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who smashed a two-run homer into the upper deck. “These guys compete against each other. They know what the other ones are doing. They feed off that.”
Jackson’s start followed Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann each allowing three earned runs or fewer in at least six innings. The Nationals have won all four games, and six of their past seven. With the Atlanta Braves’ loss to the New York Yankees, the Nationals surged into first place by three games, their largest lead of the season, even with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse yet to find their form.
“I don’t think we’re super-hot,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “When we get super-hot, it’s going to be really fun.”
It is hard to fathom now: If the Nationals’ season had unfolded how they expected, Harper would still be a minor leaguer. The Nationals planned to give Harper at least 250 plate appearances before they summoned him to the majors. He had 82 at Class AAA Syracuse before injuries made him the chosen contingency plan. He has taken 168 as a major leaguer — a total of 250, right at his intended target.
“He’s not going back,” Manager Davey Johnson said, laughing at the obviousness of the statement. Harper leads the Nationals in batting average (.295) on-base percentage (.381) and slugging (.527) since his call-up.
“You just have to stay even-keel,” Harper said. “I went 3 for 4 today. I could go 0 for 4 tomorrow.”
All through the night, the crowd in right field serenaded him with, “Haaaar-Perrr.” He did not react, but he noticed. Johnson moved Harper from right field at the start of the game to center. Later, he told Harper he’d be moving back to right. “I haven’t made friends with all those people in center yet,” Harper replied, smiling.
Monday night, Harper’s performance bulwarked another workhorse outing from Jackson. He came off the mound in the eighth inning, having allowed no runs since the first inning. He told Johnson, “Give me one batter. I want to finish it.” No other Nationals starter had pitched into the ninth inning all year. Jackson wanted his second complete game.