No team in the National League East had a better April than the Nationals, and Saturday night the Hollywood script writers worked over time on a fairy tale ending. Bryce Harper’s first game in the major leagues was the setting. It drew so much press attention to Dodger Stadium that the Queen of England could have slipped into town unnoticed.
Harper may have been the headline for the Nationals’ weekend at Dodger Stadium, but Stephen Strasburg’s brilliant performance Saturday night made real all the hype that has followed both of the two most-watched young baseball talents in the game today. For his part, the 19-year old Harper demonstrated why his is considered a singular skill set. Given a high fastball by Chad Billingsley, he flashed the high-torque swing that is at the heart of all the hyperbole. The ball went out faster than it came in and as it bounced around center field, Harper was pumping so hard around the bases that he might have hurt himself stopping at second.
For a while, Harper and Strasburg made it look as easy as if they were Butch and Sundance. Strasburg had nine strikeouts in seven innings and left having allowed only a single run. It should have been enough to produce a win. The throw on the money by Harper from left field should have been enough to preserve the shutout. The three runs -- one driven in by Harper - should have been an adequate lead to close out the win in the bottom of the ninth. But the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang is without Drew Storen, Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman and the Dodgers were as relentless as Pinkertons.
By Sunday, they had milked the scene of any magic it once had. Gio Gonzalez continued to pitch brilliantly, but the Dodgers scored twice against him without having to swing the bat. The Nationals, on the other hand, hardly seemed to swing the bat at all. The offense produced only three hits against Chris Capuano, whose career stats are less than overwhelming. Along with the young and unproven bullpen, the Dodgers shut out Washington and made it look effortless.
There was still a chance at the end of the day. Harper came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with Adam LaRoche on base. But the Dodgers’ freshly minted closer, Kenley Jansen, pitched around him and the Nationals went down with a whimper, not a bang, managing only five runs in three games.
Swept in Los Angeles is a tough storyline to sell. But the Nationals return to Washington with their dignity complete. They played three tight contests against what looks to be one of the better teams in the National League. Matt Kemp is the new Albert Pujols. The Nationals pushed the Dodgers to the limit in every game and did so with some of their best players watching from the wings.
Baseball is a difficult game and one of its most demanding aspects is staying positive day after day during the long season. When the hard-hit balls always seem to find a glove, when the hot hitter always seems to come up with the bases empty and the slumping one when the game is on the line, it can appear impossible.
As the Nationals return to D.C. for a three-game set against the Arizona Diamondbacks, one thing is certain: The best is yet to come. There will be many, many games that will feature Harper, Strasburg and the rest of the young Nationals walking off the field with the W. The pitching staff is still the best in baseball by any number you can find.
On Tuesday, there will be new excitement for Harper’s first game in Nationals Park. And that will be just the first of many highly charged plot twists yet to come.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.