First-place Nats overpower last-place Red Sox

If you had read that headline two years ago, would you have thought I was headed for a mental ward?

How the tables have turned.

All Stephen Strasburg did tonight was strike out 13 hitters over six innings of two-run ball, allowing just four hits and retiring 11 in a row at one stretch. All Bryce Harper did was go 3-for-5 with a home run, a double, a walk and three RBIs.

I’m no scout, but I feel like those two have bright futures ahead of them.

“That was fun watching,” manager Davey Johnson said of his young duo. “I’m sure the fans enjoyed that too.”

Of the eight times that Strasburg and Harper have taken the field together so far this season, tonight was far and away the strongest combo performance by the two former top picks. They led the way as the Nationals dominated the Red Sox, earning a 7-4 win in a game which was not nearly as close as the score might indicate.

Strasburg needed to battle his way through six innings, as he loaded the bases in the sixth and saw his pitch count rise to a new career high. But he bore down and struck out Kevin Youkilis looking to end the Red Sox threat on a close pitch, which Pitch F/X confirmed was a strike.

strasburg windup grey sidebar.jpg“(Strasburg) got a little out of sorts, I thought, early in the ballgame but he came back and started really going after them,” Johnson said. “I was looking that maybe I was going to have to hold him to five, and there’s no way I’m hooking him with the bases loaded. I don’t care what his pitch count was. I was going to have to fight ownership if I let him go too long, but I didn’t want to have to fight Stras if I went and took him out. It was just a great effort.”

Was Strasburg aware that his final pitch count (119) was as high as it was?

“I mean, I knew it was up there,” Strasburg said, “but I had so much adrenaline being in Fenway for the first time, it didn’t really matter.”

Strasburg got 20 swings and misses today, the most in any start over his career. His fastball command was exceptional, he had the changeup working and, thanks to some recent tips from outfielder Rick Ankiel (a former pitcher), Strasburg found a better feel for his curveball.

“I think I have a tendency to almost try and throw it down in the zone, like throw a two-strike curveball in the dirt, and not really trust it,” Strasburg said. “I think that’s just something that’s slowly getting back coming off of (Tommy John) surgery. It’s starting to feel a lot better, a lot more like what it used to. I was able to just throw it, and the velocity started to come up with it a little bit too.”

Harper, meanwhile, got off to a rough start tonight, striking out swinging in his first at-bat, taking a cut at all five pitches he saw from lefty Felix Doubront and going down on a big, breaking curveball. From there, he dominated, smoking a double to right-center in the third, crushing a two-run homer in the fourth and singling in another run in the sixth.

“I think I just got a little overwhelmed with the atmosphere (in the first at-bat),” Harper said. “It was just a great atmosphere. I think I was just a little too anxious and tried to do a little too much. The crowd’s going crazy and whatnot. It was a little bit different, that first one, really than all the rest.”

This was just another case of a 19-year-old making adjustments on the fly and showing the baseball intellect of someone with far more major league experience. In Harper’s first at-bat of a game, he’s slugging .433. In his second at-bat, he’s now slugging .833.

A first-place team beat a last-place team at Fenway Park tonight. But thanks to their two young stars, the Nats were the ones who were victorious and stay seated atop the National League East.

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