When Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were picked No. 1 overall by the Nationals in back-to-back drafts, they were supposed to help turn around a struggling franchise.
Several years later, Washington is a perennial playoff contender, and the team currently leads the NL East with a quarter of the regular season remaining. But Strasburg and Harper have little to do with this year’s success.
The two have had up-and-down seasons before — with injuries usually playing a part — but 2014 has been particularly rough for them.
Harper, an All-Star and NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, has hit just .230 with four home runs in 36 games since returning from a thumb injury on June 30.
“He’s been searching a little bit,” manager Matt Williams said. “He’s been trying to find that timing, that rhythm. He experiments with his stance from time to time.”
There are signs the 21-year-old slugger is beginning to come out of his funk. He entered Wednesday’s game with two home runs in his previous five games, one of them a walk-off in the 13th inning against the Mets last week.
For his part, Strasburg has been stuck in a rut for some time.
The 26-year-old right-hander has allowed an earned run in 12 of his past 13 starts, and he has a 2-6 record since mid-June. In his last start, he was rocked against Atlanta on Aug. 8, giving up seven earned runs.
Strasburg, who had a 2.96 ERA in his first four major league seasons, ranks fourth among Washington’s five starters with a 3.68 ERA.
Still, Strasburg, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010, has been able to rack up strikeouts — ranking fourth in the majors with 186. And he’s been one of the unluckier pitchers in the majors. According to fangraphs.com, players have a .341 batting average on balls in play against Strasburg — the fourth-highest mark in baseball.
Though Strasburg hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant ace status in this rotation, Williams is confident his pitcher is developing properly.
“I don’t know how we can argue with the numbers he’s put up,” Williams said. “It’s pretty good, really good. He does throw a lot of pitches, but that’s because he’s got really good stuff and he strikes out a lot of guys. I think he’s doing just fine. I think he’s progressing through his career just fine.”
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