Two weeks ago, Stephen Strasburg was taken to task in this space for basically acting childish on the mound.
He lost his composure after a throwing error in a scoreless game against the Chicago Cubs, allowing four unearned runs to score and letting the game get out of hand. It was a game he - and just about all Nationals fans - would like to forget.
It seems that's exactly what happened. In three starts since that tragic outing at Nationals Park, Strasburg has pitched more like the mature young man the team drafted first overall in 2009. His line against San Diego, San Francisco and Philadelphia: 23 innings pitched, 13 hits, six walks, three earned runs and 20 strikeouts. He's 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA and an 0.83 WHIP.
His May 16 outing against San Diego was solid, eight innings of three-hit ball for the win, and even surviving a fifth-inning throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman - and a resulting unearned run. It was his longest career outing and served notice that he is indeed capable of clearing his mind after miscues by his teammates.
Against San Francisco on May 21, he was again a victim of hard luck. He was in position to win the game after allowing just one earned run on five hits and three walks over seven innings. But the Washington offense could muster only one run, and the Giants came back to win with a two-out, ninth-inning triple by Gregor Blanco (with the help of Bryce Harper's misplay) and Pablo Sandoval's 10th-inning homer off Yunesky Maya.
However, that didn't stop Strasburg from turning in what was likely his finest outing of the season Sunday against Philadelphia, allowing five hits, no walks, and one run over eight innings. He retired 10 straight at one point, and if not for the first balk of his major league career - a call manager Davey Johnson said was borderline - he would've had a shutout.
This turnabout seems to have come at the most opportune time. The Nats are going to need Strasburg to anchor a strong pitching rotation if they are going to have any chance of repeating as division champions. With a .230 team batting average - 28th in the majors - and a .242 average with runners in scoring position, it should be obvious that this team is not going to win a lot of high-scoring games. That situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the injuries to key players. Jayson Werth is battling a troublesome hamstring that will keep him out for at least another week, and Harper is struggling with a sore knee that could bother him all season.
The upcoming stretch of games will be a big test for the Nationals. The Baltimore Orioles have a potent lineup, hitting .266, with 206 runs to the Nats' 173 and 54 homers to Washington's 43. Then comes the second trip of the season to Atlanta, which raked the Nationals by a combined score of 29-8 in the teams' first five meetings this season before the Nats took the last two, by scores of 2-0 and 3-1.
If Strasburg and the other starters can keep their heads and hold the score down while the offense tries to find some kind of rhythm, then maybe the Nationals can start to dig into the Braves' five-game lead in the National League East.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.