NEW YORK — The fantastic expectation that Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg would hoist the Washington Nationals on their shoulders this season yielded to dull reality. Harper battled injury. Strasburg fought inconsistency. They both felt the yoke of pervasive scrutiny. Their slumps and utterances were examined. Their feats only stoked hype. The expected team-carriers turned into very good parts of a contender.
By its nature, baseball unveils shifts slowly, so you do not notice them as they happen. It drops hints along the way, visible only in hindsight. Thursday night might have been one for the Nationals. In a 4-1 victory over the New York Mets at Citi Field, Harper and Strasburg offered a glimpse of what could happen when they are ready to lead. As the Nationals further entrenched themselves in first place, Strasburg and Harper, dual forces united by generational promise and prominence within the organization, lifted them for one night.
Strasburg stemmed his struggles pitching away from Nationals Park and submitted a three-hit gem, allowing one run — none earned — while walking two and striking out eight in seven commanding innings. Harper took his most emphatic swing of the season and annihilated a two-run homer in the fourth inning, giving the Nationals a four-run lead that was more than safe in Strasburg’s hands.
“This game is funny,” Strasburg said. “You can always learn something new. I think I’ve had bad games on the road. I think there’s things that I do that put me in a position where they can take a better swing at it. I’m just going to keep trying to learn as much as I can.”
The Nationals didn’t rely solely on Harper and Strasburg. Adam LaRoche staked Strasburg to a 2-0 lead with a two-run, first-inning homer on Dillon Gee’s 0-2 fastball. The effort thrust the Nationals a season-high six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. The Nationals will go home to play the Pittsburgh Pirates this weekend. After falling to the Dodgers, the Braves will host the Oakland Athletics, the best team in baseball.
The Nationals have opened a meaningful gap at a point of the season when October is starting to feel vividly near. Even if the Nationals stumbled down the stretch with a 21-22 record in their remaining 43 games, the Braves would need to go 26-15 — 102-win pace over a full season — just to catch them.
“This is the point in the season where you want to pull away,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who extended his scoreless innings streak to 12. “As a ball club, we probably feel like we should be about 10 games up. But we’re not. Six is good. We’re pretty happy with that.”
But not too happy.
“We’ve seen in recent years it doesn’t mean anything,” Manager Matt Williams said. “All it means is, we got to work harder.”
The chances of the Nationals playing below .500 the rest of the way seem low considering they get to face the Mets another seven times. They have won 11 straight at Citi Field, and they’re 10-2 against them this season. The Nationals have played 11 percent of their games vs. the Mets and hit 18 percent of their homers — 19 of 104 — against them.
“The whole difference is we can’t keep the ball in the park and we can’t hit them out,” Mets Manager Terry Collins said.
Entering Thursday night, Strasburg had gone 1-8 with a 5.25 ERA in 12 road outings. In his last start, Strasburg allowed the Braves three homers and seven runs in five innings. Still, Williams carried a hunch Strasburg would thrive Thursday. “I think he’s ready for this one,” Williams said before the game.
Williams had noticed Strasburg in constant conversation between starts, “wanting to be really good,” Williams said. Strasburg asked questions and sponged information from all over the clubhouse. He chatted with Williams, bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark — “you name it,” Strasburg said, cracking a smile after rattling off names.
No one specific kernel of information stuck in his mind. But Strasburg vowed he would pitch inside against the Mets and worry about himself more than the hitters.
“I wanted to go out there and focus on the execution aspect and just pitch,” Strasburg said. “Just make it a little bit harder for them to be comfortable.”
From the start, the advice he collected paid off. Strasburg retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced. He spotted 96-mph fastballs at the corners of the strike zone, and he finished off hitters with wicked curves and unfair change-ups.
“He had really good fastball command, both sides of the plate,” Williams said. “That’s where it starts with him. If he can do that, it just opens up everything else.”
His place at the top of the Nationals’ rotation may have been usurped by Fister, and Strasburg has endured a handful of clunkers. Still, He lowered his ERA to 3.53, and he leads the league with 194 strikeouts.
The Mets’ largest threat only showed Strasburg’s resolve. Eric Young led off the sixth inning with a double down the left field line. Curtis Granderson drew the first walk issued by a Nationals pitcher in the series.
Strasburg pitched Daniel Murphy with care, fastballs over the outside corner. With a 1-2 count, he twirled a curveball at the top of the zone. Murphy grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. Strasburg finished the inning when David Wright swung over a biting curve.
Strasburg remained strong until the end. For the second out of the seventh inning, Strasburg froze Matt den Dekker with a perfect backdoor curveball. With his 101st and final pitch, Strasburg blazed a 95-mph fastball past Juan Lagares.
“He threw the ball in on people,” McCatty said. “He changed speeds, used his breaking ball. I just thought he did a real nice job.”
As Strasburg held the Mets at bay, Harper provided the night’s largest blow. In the fourth inning, with Ian Desmond on first after a leadoff walk, Harper strolled to the plate. Gee heaved a 1-1, 88-mph fastball down the chute. Harper vaporized it. The violent whip of his bat rocketed the ball to right-center field, almost to the bridge behind the bullpens.
“It felt great,” Harper said. “That’s one of the best balls I’ve hit all year.”
Harper searched for his power in the wake of his return from thumb surgery, but he now has three homers in his last seven games, all against the Mets.
“I think he’s getting stronger by the day,” Williams said. “He’s seeing it better. It probably all starts with strength. If you feel good about it, you’re able to stay back. He’s been doing that.”