The Washington Nationals arrived at the easy way to avoid controversy, the best method to scuttle any lingering hard feelings. They did not talk their way out of a lineup logjam, and they did not hold a team meeting to address whether to share an opinion about the manager’s lineup card. Tuesday night, they pitched with ease, hit with ferocity and asserted their dominance over an enfeebled opponent. They huddled on the dugout steps and welcomed runners in packs, smiles on their faces. They won.
In a 7-1 victory over the beleaguered Colorado Rockies, the Nationals showcased their fully loaded lineup for the second straight night, proving the problem of too many good hitters with Bryce Harper’s return is no problem at all. Stephen Strasburg rebounded from a beating in Milwaukee with 72 / 3 breezy innings, allowing one purely cosmetic run in his last frame. Jayson Werth led the Nationals’ 10-hit, seven-walk onslaught by going 2 for 3 with two doubles, two walks, three RBI and two runs.
For the second straight day, Manager Matt Williams fielded questions about Harper’s opinion of his lineup in the afternoon — Williams said he supported Harper in full. At night, Strasburg the Nationals took apart the Rockies and left the subject for others to prattle about.
The Nationals scored seven runs for the third straight game, a feat they last accomplished in September 2012. They remained a half-game behind the Atlanta Braves, but they pushed their record to 45-38, a high-water mark at seven games above .500. They’ve won four in a row and eight of their past 11, the last two with an unrelenting lineup that has caused problems only for opposing pitchers.
“It probably puts more pressure on them than anything else,” Werth said. “That’s what the game is all about, putting pressure on the other team and taking advantage of opportunities. That’s what we’ve done the past couple nights, and that’s what we’ve been doing. We just need to keep rolling. We got a long way to go. I like our team. I like where we’re at.”
The only thing on the field that could stem enthusiasm about the past two nights was the opponent. The Nationals twice thumped the Rockies, a banged-up team that has lost 13 of 15. On Monday the Nationals beat rookie left-hander Yohan Flande, which sounds like it would be delicious topped with butterscotch sauce and paired with a nice Trebbiano. Tuesday, they throttled Christian Friedrich, who entered with a 6.37 career ERA in 18 starts. Still, 14 runs in two games is no small feat against any big league team.
“I like what I see right now from my guys,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “We’re playing together. The lineup is very strong right now. A lot of pitchers don’t want to throw to us, because we got a pretty good lineup.”
Even considering their recent swoon, the Rockies can score — they entered with a collective .285 average and .792 OPS. Williams said they reminded him of the Brewers, the team that hammered Strasburg for seven runs in 42 / 3 innings in his previous start. Tuesday night, though, Strasburg cruised.
After his start in Milwaukee, Strasburg admitted he felt off mechanically. In the five days between outings, Strasburg identified the problem. He was rotating his front shoulder too early in his delivery — “flying open,” in pitching parlance. The glitch caused his fastball to miss its intended location. In the bullpen over the weekend, Strasburg made the correction.
“I just tried to execute pitches better,” Strasburg said. “I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. I just wanted to go out there and just trust myself, have a little bit finer focus out there.”
Strasburg labored through a 24-pitch first inning as the Rockies flicked foul balls. Then he oppressed them. He kept pitches down in the zone and produced weak contact. Before the eighth inning, Strasburg allowed just one runner past first base and none past second. DJ LeMahieu blasted a solo homer over the red seats in the eighth, the only blemish against him. Strasburg also did not walk anyone until the final batter he faced. He struck out eight and allowed five hits.
“To me, he doesn’t need to think too much,” Ramos said. “He just needs to go out there and do what he likes to do. Just focus and trust his pitches, and that’s it. That’s all he needs.”
Strasburg pitched with a comfortable lead for the duration. Denard Span and Anthony Rendon drew consecutive walks to lead off against Friedrich, a fitting tone. Werth had hit just six extra-base hits in June, but in his first at-bat of July he delivered both promise and a two-run lead.
He ripped Friedrich’s 1-2 curveball past third baseman Ryan Wheeler and into the left field corner. Span and Rendon raced home, and the Nationals took a 2-0 lead before their first out. Adam LaRoche reached on infield single, and Ryan Zimmerman pounded a sacrifice fly to right field to score Werth to send the Nationals up, 3-0.
The Nationals held that lead until the fourth, when they knocked out Friedrich, bludgeoned reliever Chad Bettis and sealed the outcome with a rally Strasburg began with a double.
In the eighth inning, Williams shifted Zimmerman from third to first base to rest Adam LaRoche, moved Rendon to third and subbed in Kevin Frandsen at second. Williams held out Danny Espinosa, he said, because he may “look to” start Espinosa on Wednesday, his first action since Friday.
Williams will have more choices to make all season, but if the Nationals continue at their current pace, all of them will look appealing. Late Tuesday, Rendon chuckled as Gio Gonzalez tried to throw sunflower seeds into strength coach John Philbin’s pants pocket. Winning had made everything fun, everything just fine.
Box score: Nationals 7, Rockies 1
Wise: Harper needs to grow up