Ted Leavengood: Playing for pride

Stephen Strasburg’s complete-game shutout on Sunday was an exclamation point at the end of a weekend statement that the Nationals have found their sense of pride. It was the best game of Strasburg’s young career. He has said many times that he wants to go deeper into seasons, deeper into games and it doesn’t get much deeper than a complete-game shutout.

Coming at the end of the weekend sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies, it emphasized Davey Johnson’s assertion that the team needed to play for a sense of its own pride. His remark came after the team had been embarrassed against the Atlanta Braves, swept at home and outplayed in almost every aspect of the game - save perhaps for Ian Desmond’s heady play against Dan Uggla as he tried to make the Nats look silly by taking an abandoned third base bag.

With Jayson Werth leading the way, the Nationals were able to do one thing they have been able to do only rarely this season - they came from behind. As impressive as Strasburg’s gem was on Sunday, the Saturday game was the most inspiring. After Taylor Jordan was touched up for four runs in the second inning, the Nats did not fold against the Phillies’ best pitcher, Cliff Lee. They drew to within a run by the sixth inning on clutch hits by Werth, Desmond and Wilson Ramos.

Leading by a slim 4-3 margin, Charlie Manuel took Lee out of the game when he had thrown only 97 pitches. The old West Virginia native went to a bullpen that is less than stellar and Werth made him pay. It was Werth’s presence that was the difference again as his two-run home run put the Nats ahead to stay in the seventh inning.

Werth has answered the call whether in the leadoff slot or hitting cleanup as he is now. No one else this season has been able to put up the kind of numbers to justify hitting fourth. So say what you will about his long term and expensive contract, but Werth has been the rarest of commodities for Washington in 2013: a consistent source of offense.

There have been other three-game sweeps. Washington won all three against the Mets in a weekend series at the end of July and another against the Padres to start the month. The awful month of July was bracketed by two series that seemed to promise “a change was gonna come.” No one believes in anxiously wondering whether this is the run that the Nationals have been waiting for all season. It hardly matters except as a point of pride.

The games come one at a time and no momentum can be built except by executing the little things moment by moment throughout each game as they roll up on the schedule. Yes, the balls have not been falling for Washington, but that is part of the game. The reason why the Nationals have been unable to build momentum is more rudimentary. The team has not been able to execute the fundamentals dependably.

Holding opposition runners, laying down the sacrifice bunt or getting the sacrifice fly are just a short list of the core facets of the game that have escaped almost every Washington player at one point in the season or another. It has been a team effort and overcoming it will require a similar commitment by everyone.

There are more signs of rebirth coming from the minors. Tanner Roark has stepped in for Ross Ohlendorf, who was his own source of inspiration. Roark had two scoreless outings and picked up his first major league win. Feel-good stories have not been hard to find in 2013, rather it has been a steady and enduring narrative that has been missing in action.

But Strasburg’s performance is a huge game-changer. He was just one more player showing the way. It will take a constant repetition of sound play to make it more than just another three-game sweep.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. 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.

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