The Nationals couldn't have hoped to begin the second half of the season more solidly than they did on Friday night, when they beat the Marlins 4-0 in a game that showcased much of the best they can be. Stephen Strasburg got better as the game went along, finishing with his first shutout performance. The Nationals solved Marlins starter RIcky Nolasco in the sixth inning, going ahead for good on an impressive piece of hitting from Josh Willingham, who inside-outed a hanging slider from Nolasco for a three-run double.
They made no errors, and the Nationals' bullpen followed Strasburg with three shutout innings. Aside from some nitpicking about leaving runners on base (which mostly fell on Willingham's first two at-bats), there wasn't much to find fault with for the Nationals.
The win improved their record to 40-50, and pulled them within 2 1/2 games of the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East. Here are the awards from last night:
Stephen Strasburg: This is becoming almost automatic after the rookie pitches, but Friday night was the first time he got through a game without giving up a run. He weathered his first-inning struggles and threw just 65 pitches in the final five innings of the game, effectively shelving his changeup after the first inning. Strasburg threw only two of them in the last five innings, relying on his fastball and curveball to get him through. The knock on Strasburg last year was that he needed to develop a changeup, and he has. But on Friday night, he was able to get by without it.
Adam Dunn: Even when he's not hitting home runs - and the occasions where he's not hitting home runs have been few and far between lately - Dunn is finding ways to contribute. He added a new one on Friday, slipping a single between two layers of the lefty shift the Marlins (and most teams) play against him. To see Dunn place an infield single was rare, and he laid off two curveballs in the sixth inning to earn a key walk in the Nationals' sixth-inning surge.
Drew Storen: In two no-hit innings, Storen threw first pitch strikes to four of the last five batters he faced, getting the Marlins to put his curveball in play for weak outs. He kept the Nationals from having to use Tyler Clippard in a late-inning situation when they're trying to get him back on track, and maintained the four-run lead. Another good night for the rookie.
Roger Bernadina: On a night where every other position player had either a hit or a sacrifice fly, Bernadina didn't contribute anything offensively, going 0-for-4 with a strikeout.
Stephen Strasburg, at the plate: The rookie struck out in both of his at-bats, and appeared to miss a bunt sign when he fouled off a pitch in his second at-bat. Ian Desmond was going on the pitch, and cameras showed Jim Riggleman reacting exasperatedly when Strasburg fouled off Ricky Nolasco's fastball. He's got one hit in 14 at-bats, and doesn't have a sacrifice bunt yet. The Nationals sent him to the minors during the spring to help him learn how to hit, and Strasburg had some productive days at the plate at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. That hasn't translated at the pro level.
In Case You Missed It:
--Ian Desmond's bunt single in the fifth inning, which put him on base right before Strasburg's at-bat, was about a half-inch from going foul. Desmond's bunt tightroped down the third-base line, taking a slight right just as it was about to drift into foul territory and stopping on the chalk. It wasn't a perfect bunt, but credit Desmond for handling a tough curveball and getting the bunt down.
--When Willingham doubled in the sixth inning, Nyjer Morgan and Cristian Guzman scored easily. Adam Dunn came home on an aggressive decision by third-base coach Pat Listach, and the play was close enough that both Morgan and Guzman were signaling Dunn to get down and slide. Dunn ignored them, crossing the plate standing up, and just barely avoiding the tag of catcher Ronny Paulino.
--Alberto Gonzalez's gutsy decision to advance from second to third on Morgan's flyout to shallow center in the seventh inning paid off. He appeared to catch center fielder Cody Ross off-guard, and slid in safely when Ross' throw took a high bounce at third, preventing Jorge Cantu from getting a tag down in time.
1. What do you take away more from this game - the continuation of Stephen Strasburg's issues in the first inning, or his ability to keep putting up zeros, effectively with two pitches? That looks like the sign of an ace, but Strasburg is shortening his outings with these long first innings. What was your take on it?
2. How encouraged are you with the way the Nationals played on Friday night -- is this a good omen for the second half, or just a good game with a good pitcher on the mound?