Through the season’s trying first two and a half months, the Washington Nationals have begged for patience. They have been just as disappointed and frustrated with their results, but players, front office personnel and the manager have insisted, time and again, that they would pull themselves out of the hole they have dug.
This time, they may finally mean it.
Behind a strong start from Stephen Strasburg and continued clutch hitting from Ian Desmond, the Nationals won their third straight, 2-1, over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night and moved, yet again, back over .500. Three straight wins might not be much for a team picked as a preseason World Series favorite, but this marked the first time in six weeks the Nationals (37-36) have strung together three in a row.
“The record doesn’t really indicate it and I’m sure people on the outside probably don’t really take that too seriously, but we’ve been really playing better and running into some tough pitching,” Desmond said.
Strasburg allowed only one run and fanned nine batters over seven innings before exiting after 95 pitches and a heated discussion with pitching coach Steve McCatty. After allowing a seventh-inning double, Strasburg appeared to stretch his right side where he suffered a lat strain that landed him on the disabled list three weeks ago. But Strasburg assured McCatty, Manager Davey Johnson and a trainer that he was fine. McCatty, cautious with Strasburg’s health, already had the right-hander on a pitch limit in his second start back from the disabled list.
“Just like the Mother Hen that he is,” Johnson said of his pitching coach.
Strasburg’s season thus far has been one of almost criminal win deprivation. He has the second-lowest run support of any pitcher in baseball and had just three wins in 13 starts before Friday night, when he and the Nationals were rescued by Desmond’s seventh-inning solo home run.
For six innings against Rockies right-handed starter Tyler Chatwood, the Nationals mustered little offense while Strasburg held down a potent Colorado lineup. Chatwood held the struggling Nationals offense to four hits and one run. In the sixth inning, Washington’s scuffling middle of the order struck when Anthony Rendon, who continued his torrid hitting with two more hits, singled with two outs. Ryan Zimmerman then sliced a double to right to knot the game at 1.
Then, an inning later, Desmond broke through. One of the few offensive bright spots throughout the Nationals’ struggles, Desmond greeted reliever Manny Corpas with a vicious swing that sent an 89-mph sinker into the center field seats. It was Desmond’s third home run in as many days.
“He hit the fastball where it was pitched — it was out over the plate — instead of trying to pull it,” Johnson said. “He’s been good at that. He’s something special, no doubt about it.”
Since Strasburg allowed four unearned runs to the Chicago Cubs on May 11, a game during which his mental fortitude was questioned, he has been near-dominant. He had allowed only one earned run in each of his past five starts, including his injury-shortened performance on May 31. In his second start back from the DL, Strasburg extended his streak to six.
He worked out of two jams in the early innings. In the second, he neutralized a leadoff single and stolen base by Michael Cuddyer by getting groundouts from Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado around a strikeout of Todd Helton. In the fifth, he worked around a one-out single, ending the inning by striking out Dexter Fowler on a nasty backdoor curveball in a 10-pitch at-bat.
Strasburg’s lone miscue was in the third inning when he grazed Josh Rutledge with an inside fastball to lead off the inning. A sacrifice bunt by Chatwood pushed Rutledge to second base. Strasburg struck out Fowler on four pitches and needed one final out to wiggle out unharmed. DJ LeMahieu smacked the first pitch he saw into left field, scoring Rutledge from second. Strasburg stranded LeMahieu at second with a lineout from Carlos Gonzalez.
Before the game, Johnson said Strasburg would be held to no specific pitch limit. McCatty, however, had a limit. With two outs in the seventh, Strasburg gave up a double to Rutledge. After seeing Strasburg stretch and Desmond jog to the mound, McCatty and assistant trainer Steve Gober ran out to the mound to talk to Strasburg. With his glove, Strasburg signaled for Gober to return to the dugout, and within a few seconds, both Gober and McCatty did.
Strasburg completed the inning by getting a popup from pinch hitter Tyler Colvin, a difficult over-the-shoulder catch by Zimmerman racing into foul territory. A fiery Strasburg yelled in support of Zimmerman’s catch. “That was huge,” Strasburg said.
In the dugout, Strasburg and McCatty had an animated conversation with raised voices. Following the game, Johnson and Strasburg both said the right-hander was fine. But initially, Johnson and McCatty thought Strasburg was stretching the same area of his back that sent him to the disabled list.
“I’m not a kid anymore,” Strasburg said. “The only reason why he came out is because he saw Desi come up and talk to me, but you know, Desi just told me ‘Hey, let yourself pitch.’ You know, I should be allowed to stretch a little bit out there. . . . Obviously he cares about me and wants everything to be okay, but there was nothing to be worried about.”
Johnson sent Drew Storen to the mound for the eighth. Storen, relegated to being a right-handed specialist last week, walked leadoff hitter Fowler to start the inning. The speedy center fielder moved to second on a throwing error by Storen after the pitcher caught a popped up bunt. Storen, who has struggled against left-handed hitters this season, made an impressive recovery by striking out Gonzalez and Cuddyer. “That’s the old Drew right there,” Johnson said.
Rafael Soriano notched his 19th save with a scoreless ninth inning, and the Nationals walked off the field, for the first time in what has felt like an eternity, winners of three straight.
“We’re still not where we need to be,” Johnson said. “Every hitter in the lineup is not where they need to be. But we’re going to get there. I have all the confidence in the world we’re going to get there.”