Two wins in three games against a Mariners team fighting for a spot in the postseason is nothing to sneeze at. Though the Nationals have largely had their way with the Mariners over the years, a series win in Seattle this season is significant.
Losing pitcher Tanner Roark lamented one bad pitch to Dustin Ackley on Sunday afternoon: a meaty fastball that Ackley turned on for a three-run homer that helped the Mariners to a 5-3 victory and prevented a Nationals sweep at Safeco Field.
The Nationals now travel to Los Angeles for three games with the National League West-leading Dodgers. And though seeing the two best teams in the NL battle in a possible postseason preview is intriguing, the Nationals area encouraged by the sudden return of outfielder Bryce Harper’s power stroke, which has been missing in action for much of the season.
The thumb injury that necessitated surgery and shelved Harper for almost six weeks sapped the slugger of his power upon his return. But three homers in the weekend series in Seattle - including to mammoth solo blasts in today’s defeat - create the possibility that Harper’s home run bat is heating up.
Manager Matt Williams isn’t surprised. With hand injuries, it usually takes some time for a hitter to regain his timing and strength.
“I just think he’s getting stronger,” Williams said of Harper. “His hand’s getting stronger, which allows him to stay back and calm his down a little bit. I think we’ve seen that over the past couple of weeks. He swung the bat good today.”
Harper blasted a Hisashi Iwakuma pitch off the facing of a restaurant on the second deck in right field in the second inning, a clout measured at 418 feet. After Nate Schierholtz homered to right-center in the third for a 2-0 Washington lead, Harper made it 3-1 an inning later with a drive off Iwakuma that cleared the 401-foot marker in center.
“To get that lead early was what we needed to do,” Harper said. “I wish we could have won the ballgame, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Harper was coy when asked if he felt like he was turning a corner in a season that’s been full of offensive struggles. He’s clearly staying back and feeling more comfortable in his approach, but he talked only about wanting to take what he’s doing in batting practice and translating it into game at-bats.
But he did say what happened Sunday felt “good.”
“I’m trying to stay with the same plan, stick with what I’m trying to do,” Harper said.
Asked whether Harper was heating up at a good time, Williams said: “It’s significant that he feels good. It’s the case with everybody: It takes some time. You miss that kind of time and it takes you time to get your rhythm and timing and strength back. You see a little bit better bat speed with not as much effort, which is good. ... If he can continue to swing the bat like that, it certainly helps us.”
More from the Nationals clubhouse:
Williams on Roark’s tough fifth inning: “He just missed location on Ackley. He was supposed to go down and away and he was middle-in, and he hit a homer. That’s the only really bad pitch he made. ... I think today he was sharper than last time out. But again, it’s a question of one pitch. He just missed location. “
Roark on his outing: “It’s one bad pitch. I made a mistake. ... Throw a fastball, just cut it a little bit and it was in the sweet spot. I didn’t stay through it, I yanked it. ... Felt good, felt strong out there. Just one pitch.”
Roark on the Nats’ series win against the Mariners: “It was a heck of a series. ... We won the series. We got a good matchup coming up against the Dodgers and we’ll prepare for them tomorrow.”
Roark on Harper’s day: “I feel like we’ve all been hitting the ball real well. Bryce is getting his foot down, he’s feeling strong and confident up there. It’s great.”
Harper on whether a series against a first-place Dodgers team would be any kind of measuring stick for the Nats: “I think we’re a great team. ... We know where we’re at and we know where we need to be.”