The Nationals have played their last 23 games against the National League and American League East. They have gone 15-8 in those games and lead the NL East by five games and the last-place Philadelphia Phillies by 91
“We knew we could do it,” Johnson said. “We’re no longer a secret to anybody.”
The baseball world will turn Friday to Washington, where Nationals Park will host a weekend showdown between the first-place New York Yankees and the first-place Nationals, baseball’s old money and its furious upstarts. The Nationals will enter confident in their standing, but hungry for more.
“It’s great what we’ve done,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’re happy about it and proud of it. But we know it doesn’t mean anything.”
The Nationals have risen to their lofty status both riding and producing the fevered joy that comes when a new hero emerges each game. With LaRoche nursing a sore right foot after fouling a ball off it on Tuesday night, the Nationals turned to Moore, the 25-year-old Mississippian who started the year at Class AAA Syracuse and had slugged 62 homers over the past two seasons in the minor leagues.
In his first stint in the major leagues earlier this season, Moore appeared sparingly and went 3 for 19 with seven strikeouts. He learned that, while not playing every day, he needed to be more aggressive.
“The first time, I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing coming off the bench,” said Moore, who was recalled from Syracuse last week. “I felt more comfortable with what I had to do.”
Wednesday, he gave himself a memory. In his first at-bat, he came to the plate with two runners in scoring position and crushed a double to left-center field off of starter Kyle Drabek, giving Strasburg a 2-0 lead.
After the Blue Jays tied the score in the third inning, Moore struck again. In the fourth, with one man on base, he clobbered a two-run homer to left field, the first of his career. He circled the bases with his lips clenched.
“He was trying not to smile, I think,” said fellow rookie Steve Lombardozzi, who played with Moore for three years in the minors.
“I couldn’t hold it after I touched home plate,” Moore said.
Moore came to bat for the third time in sixth inning. Left-handed reliever Aaron Laffey tried to sneak a 3-2 change-up past him, and Moore annihilated it into the seats in center field. Moore had gone 28 at-bats without a homer, and then he hit two in a row. In the dugout, LaRoche turned to Johnson and said, “You can thank me.”
By himself, Moore had given Strasburg ample support. Four days after throwing 119 pitches, Strasburg breezed through six innings, walking only one batter and hitting another. He retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced, extended his league lead in strikeouts — 100 in 77 innings — and actually raised his ERA, from 2.41 to 2.45, after he allowed two runs.
Johnson removed Strasburg after only 89 pitches because Strasburg suffered a small cut on the tip of his right middle finger. Strasburg protested the early hook, but Johnson wanted to ensure the cut did not turn into a more troubling wound and endanger his next start.
“He came back in, and I saw it was a little cut,” Johnson said. “There was one pitch that aggravated it when he threw. He said, ‘I just won’t throw that pitch.’ I said, ‘You won’t throw more any pitches.’ ”
In the dugout, pitching coach Steve McCatty explained to Strasburg why he was coming out. Strasburg stared straight out to the field, an enraged expression on his face.
“I tried to tell them I was feeling good, that everything was working and I wanted to go back out there,” he said. “It’s out of my control.”
Strasburg actually cut the finger before the sixth inning, Johnson said, as he trimmed his fingernail. (It is not uncommon for pitchers to trim fingernails during a game, given the importance of how they grip the ball.) Strasburg struck out two and hit a batter in the scoreless sixth, and then Johnson noticed the cut had widened.
“It’s nothing major,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think it affected the way the ball was coming out or anything like that. I wanted to go out there again. I was trying to fight through it. They were pretty committed to getting me out there.”
Strasburg’s fastball sat consistently at 94 to 96 mph in the opening innings, and by the sixth he was hitting 97. He produced awkward swings and embarrassing moments with his off-speed pitches. Yunel Escobar nearly twirled out of the batter’s box to avoid a curveball that curled over the plate for a strike. Colby Rasmus struck out three times on 12 pitches, five of which he swung at and missed.
The Nationals’ bullpen cleaned up the final three innings. Strasburg could sit in the dugout, a part of the hottest team in baseball, perhaps the best story in the major leagues.
“We have a talent here,” Strasburg said. “If we go out there and play our best baseball, we can beat anybody.”