Asdrubal Cabrera stood at second base, smacked his hands together and pointed to the sky. All three runners had scored moments before. The crowd at Nationals Park erupted, and the players in the home dugout were on their feet, smiles and high-fives everywhere. The rout was on with no outs in the third inning.
This Washington Nationals’ season has been filled with injuries, ups and downs and high expectations. And even though the Nationals have been in first place for a month, what has happened over the past week-plus is pure joy. With an 8-1 drubbing of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, the Nationals extended their season-high winning streak to eight games.
Not all of the streak has been easy — look at the three walk-off wins earlier this week — but a combination of luck and strong play is needed to put together a run. And late in the season, the Nationals are playing some of their best baseball. The team’s potential is shining. The excitement of a pennant race is here, as the Atlanta Braves won their fifth straight game to keep the Nationals’ division lead at six games.
“We’re kind of coming together,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We’ve kind of established our way.”
The Nationals won one of their most lopsided games of the season with strong pitching, relentless offense and slick defense. Cabrera’s bases-clearing double gave the Nationals a comfortable lead and Desmond, who drove in four runs, added more. Jayson Werth had three hits, and Anthony Rendon had two. Stephen Strasburg pitched eight stout innings to give a weary bullpen needed rest.
“I guess it’s what the doctor ordered,” Strasburg said. “I just wanted to go out there and build off the last start and keep doing the things that I’ve been.”
The Nationals gave Strasburg a comfortable lead with a six-run outburst in the third inning. After singles by Denard Span and Rendon off Diamondbacks right-handed starter Chase Anderson, Werth drove in the Nationals’ first run with his own single to center.
Adam LaRoche walked to load the bases, and Desmond then laced a broken-bat single to left field to drive in two runs. With the bases loaded, Desmond is now 8 for 11 (.727) with 17 RBI. Bryce Harper loaded the bases again with a single to right.
With still nobody out, Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson replaced Anderson with left-handed reliever Eury De La Rosa. The move forced switch-hitting Cabrera to bat right-handed, but he handled De La Rosa nonetheless. Hoping simply to drive in a run with a sacrifice fly, Cabrera lifted a ball to the right-center field gap with an easy swing and cleared the bases.
“It’s really fun when we play like a team like this,” Cabrera said. “The guys feel comfortable.”
The Nationals added two more runs in the sixth inning when Rendon and Werth each singled and Desmond drove them in with a single to right, fighting off a pitch that jammed him.
“That shows us a lot with Ian that he’s able to shorten down, make contact, get a single with guys out there,” Manager Matt Williams said. “That’s really important for your team. He’s going to hit a bunch of homers. We know that. But when he can take the two-run single, he’s feeling it and he’s seeing the ball good.”
Meanwhile on the mound, Strasburg provided the Nationals and its taxed relief corps a break. The three straight walk-off wins entering Tuesday put a strain on the bullpen. Strasburg fired eight innings and allowed only one run on three hits. He struck out only four, a low total for him, because he invited contact from the Diamondbacks’ lineup.
Strasburg allowed a solo home run to the third batter of the game, David Peralta, on an outside fastball. Then he mowed through the Diamondbacks lineup with little difficulty, pounding Arizona hitters inside, a concerted effort to combat opponents feasting on his fastball.
“It’s a little easier for them to square up a fastball when I’m trying to throw it in the same spot the majority of the time,” he said. “If I can move it around, inside, outside, up and down, I think over the course of the game, it just helps my command.”
In the eighth inning, Strasburg struck out Jake Lamb for his National League-leading 198th strikeout, setting a new career high for a full season with nearly six weeks to play.
“The way Stephen pitched I hope is indicative to what we’re going to see in the future,” Desmond said. “He’s been great a lot in his career, but [Tuesday] was one of those games where he was really fun to watch.”
Even though Strasburg’s pitch count was at 95 pitches through eight innings, Williams had left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins finish the game. Blevins had pitched only twice in the previous nine days, and Williams wanted him to stay active.
Blevins fired a perfect inning, and the red-hot Nationals walked off the field winners for the eighth day in a row.
“In times like this, when you’re playing well, you want to just keep going,” Williams said. “We don’t think about it too much, other than get ready for tomorrow. But the guys, they’ve gotten to the point where they understand where we’re at. They understand what it’s going to take, I think, to get to where we want to go.”