PHILADELPHIA - The Nationals know the math. They’ve reached a point in the season where it would take a miracle - or, at least, something historic - to catch the Braves and win the National League East title.
But perhaps those miniscule odds are actually helping contribute to this sudden surge by one of the majors’ most disappointing teams in 2018. When they were still facing real pressure to turn their season around, the Nationals caved. Now that the pressure is off, they’re playing a relaxed brand of baseball ... and because of it they’ve started winning a bunch.
Tonight’s 5-1 victory over the Phillies gave the Nats their first three-game series sweep since late May. They’ve won five in a row overall, also for the first time since late May. They’re two games over .500 for the first time in a month.
“We’re here. We’ve got to play,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Might as well try and win the game.”
No, this almost certainly is not going to end with a champagne celebration and more baseball in October. Even if the Nationals go 13-3 the rest of the way to reach the 87-win mark, the Braves would need only to go 6-10 to clinch their first division title in five years.
But it still beats the alternative. And as an added benefit, the Nats are taking the Phillies down with them, having swept their rivals and moved to within only 1/2-game of them for second place.
“We’re not quitting,” Stephen Strasburg said. “I think it just shows that you’ve got a bunch of guys in here that, regardless of the situation, we’re going to go out there and compete. We believe in ourselves. And we’ll see what happens.”
Strasburg authored his best start since returning from his shoulder and neck injuries, tossing seven innings of one-run ball and striking out nine without issuing a walk.
Harper got the Nats on the board with a two-run homer off Aaron Nola in the top of the first, leaving the slugger with 33 homers and 94 RBIs (five shy of his career high) on the season.
And Soto again stole the show, launching his 19th home run of the year off a 1-2 pitch from left-hander Austin Davis, the ball rattling around the second deck in right field as the crowd of 20,258 watched with dropped jaws.
It was Soto’s third homer of the series, and it only left another positive impression on Rookie of the Year voters currently waffling between the Nats’ 19-year-old star and Braves 20-year-old sensation Ronald Acuña Jr.
Here’s a stat, though, that might help tilt the scales in Soto’s favor: He’s now batting .305 with a .420 on-base percentage and .534 slugging percentage. Only one rookie under age 21 has ever produced a .300/.400/.500 slash line in a minimum of 450 plate appearances: Ted Williams.
“I mean, for 19 years old, I think the sky is the limit,” Strasburg said of his young teammate. “I think the one thing you recognize from being in the game for some time is the plate discipline, his ability to spit on good pitches. That’s the one thing that’s really stood out to me. A guy throws a really good pitch, and he doesn’t flinch. He sees it early. It’s reminiscent of watching Tony Gwynn growing up, really. It’s just that extra edge of, as soon as the pitcher is releasing the ball just seeing if it’s a ball or strike immediately. And never really being off-balance, never really being fooled on a pitch. It’s been impressive.”
Soto’s blast was the final blow for the Nationals tonight, but Harper’s blast is what got them going against the previously dominant Nola. Facing the Phillies ace for the fifth time this season and third time in the last three weeks, the Nats finally battered the right-hander around a bit. And in the process, perhaps helped their own ace’s case for the Cy Young.
Harper got it started with a two-run blast to center field, the ball landing at the Phillies’ bullpen bench well beyond the fence. Anthony Rendon followed with a double, Zimmerman added an RBI single and the Nats had a three-run top of the first.
“I think we just got some good pitches to hit and didn’t miss ‘em,” Harper said. “Nola’s really good out there. We’re trying to get some extra runs on him so (Max) Scherzer can win the Cy Young. That’s huge for us, as well.”
Zimmerman made it 4-0 in the top of the fourth when he also took Nola deep to center, just beyond Odúbel Herrera’s leaping attempt.
That proved more than enough cushion for Strasburg, who was in control from the get-go and never let up.
Though his fastball velocity again was down several ticks - it registered 92-94 mph - Strasburg made up for it with pinpoint command and effective use of both his curveball and his changeup. He allowed only two Phillies batters to reach scoring position, stranding each at second base.
J.P. Crawford did get a hold of a 3-1 fastball from Strasburg in the bottom of the fifth, homering down the right field line. But that was the only damage the Phillies did to the Nationals’ starter or relievers Koda Glover and Wander Suero, who finished off their club’s fifth consecutive win.
Quite a turnaround for the Nats, who with the pressure off now seem to be playing their best baseball.
“I don’t ever want these guys to feel pressure,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I think, obviously, winning helps a lot. But they’ve been playing really well for a while now. We’ve been in every game. They’ve battled back in most games. So I’m really proud of them. The fact that we’re winning now is a testament to what they’re doing, and what they’ve been doing.”