The Washington Nationals were handed a perfect opportunity this week to erase much of their inconsistent and injury-filled first two months of the season. The last-place Phillies arrived in the District for a three-game series in mid-tailspin, while the first-place Braves were encountering their own struggles.
Two games into the series, the Nationals look fully poised to make the most of their chances as Stephen Strasburg dominated in a rain-delayed 8-4 win over Philadelphia at Nationals Park. The victory left the Nationals one game over .500 and only 11 / 2 games behind Atlanta in the NL East.
Winners of four of the past five, the Nationals believe this could be the start of a surge.
“I hope so,” center fielder Denard Span said. “It’s been a lot of fun for us. Pitching the ball good and swinging the bat well. Hopefully we’ll keep it going.”
The rain arrived in earnest just as the Phillies trimmed into the Nationals’ comfortable lead in the top of the seventh inning, suspending play for 1 hour 48 minutes. By the time Jerry Blevins got Chase Utley to pop out to end the game a few minutes before midnight, only a handful of fans remained.
The Nationals’ offense, dormant for much of May, has scored 39 runs over the past six games, a surge powered by the hot hitting of Anthony Rendon and Span, the return of Ryan Zimmerman and the recent contributions of Danny Espinosa.
“The offense kinda kicked it back in and guys are really swinging well,” Manager Matt Williams said.
Added Span: “That’s definitely a good sign when multiple guys are swinging the bat well. Nothing more frustrating when it was just one guy swing the bat well and you can’t get anything going. It seems like collectively as a team we’ve been scoring runs and finding ways to score a lot of runs.”
Span, who is hitting .388 the past two weeks, drilled two doubles Wednesday and drove in two runs. Rendon, who hit .212 in May, knocked a two-run single and smashed his eighth home run off Phillies starter A.J. Burnett, whom the Nationals battered for eight runs. Espinosa had two hits, including a two-run double in a crucial spot in the fourth inning that started the Nationals’ scoring binge.
Strasburg, meanwhile, continued to feast on the Phillies. He worked seven strong innings and allowed just two earned runs to improve to 5-4. The right-hander has allowed just three earned runs over 36 innings (five starts) against Philadelphia dating to the start of 2013.
When Strasburg gave up a two-run home run to John Mayberry in a rainy seventh, it snapped a streak of 27 innings without allowing an earned run to the Phillies. Strasburg was at a loss to explain his success against Philadelphia.
“I just try to go out there and do my job,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Some teams I don’t pitch as well against and some teams I pitch a little bit better. I guess a lot of it has to do with how I’m feeling at the time.”
With his 11 strikeouts, Strasburg moved into the major league lead with 101 on the season. It was the earliest date in a season he has hit that mark in his career. His 11.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate so far is better than his career best in 2012.
Strasburg was boosted to a lead in the fourth inning thanks to a big hit from Espinosa, who entered the game hitting .210 with 61 strikeouts. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the frame, Espinosa hit a Burnett sinker deep to right field that appeared like it was going to leave the field. Instead, the ball hit high off the scoreboard in right field and Espinosa settled for a two-run double that sparked the Nationals’ scoring.
Strasburg then added an RBI single. The Nationals pushed the lead to 4-0 when Span’s hustle down the first baseline broke up a potential double play and allowed Espinosa to score from third.
Rendon added to the Nationals’ lead in the fifth with a monstrous solo home run off Burnett that sailed over the visitor’s bullpen in left field and into the seats. Since his average hit a season-low .251 on May 28, Rendon is 10 for 23 with home runs in back-to-back games.
The Nationals further pushed the Phillies into misery with a three-run sixth inning that revolved around Span and Rendon. With Espinosa on base after a single and Strasburg on thanks to a walk, Span drilled a double to the right field wall that Marlon Byrd lost. Rendon gave the Nationals an 8-2 lead with his two-run single to left.
Strasburg allowed two more runs but the Nationals were already in command, a team poised to make a push towards the top of the division.
“We have to work hard every day to continue to play well and do the things we want to do,” Williams said. “Over the last five days, it’s been good. And so we want to continue that trend.”