A step in the right direction

PITTSBURGH - OK, so the Nationals stranded 11 runners, went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and gave up four runs on two Pirates homers off Stephen Strasburg in yesterday’s win.

But let’s look at the positives.

The Nats twice came from behind to tie yesterday’s game. They put 15 runners on base, thanks to six hits, six walks and three hit batters. They got seven strong innings from Strasburg, who looked completely healthy and attacked the zone, needing just 95 pitches to get through those seven frames.

For a team that has struggled to put together much of anything offensively and a pitcher who had seen his team lose his last five starts, yesterday was a decent day.

Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty have been on Strasburg lately, trying to get him to trust his stuff and go right after hitters. Strasburg had thrown 17.8 pitches per inning over his previous five starts going into yesterday’s outing and had only worked into the seventh inning in one of those five starts.

Yesterday, Strasburg threw 13.6 pitches per inning. His fastball location still wasn’t ideal (he hit two batters with fastballs and both of the home runs allowed came on heaters over the heart of the plate), but he was more aggressive early, allowing himself to set up his secondary pitches in more favorable counts.

“I was happy,” Strasburg said. “I obviously gave up four runs and two homers, but I was able to get through the seventh. I feel like in the past, if I gave up that many runs, I would usually have over 100 pitches through six. I just tried to do a better job of pounding the strike zone.

“That’s biggest thing is to give your team a chance to win the ballgame. Not every game is going to be lights out, hitting every spot. I made a couple mistakes, and they put good swings on them. That’s what they get paid to do.”

Offensively, the Nats were a lot more patient yesterday than they had been for much of the last month. They had walked 11 times over their previous five games, but took what they were given yesterday, drawing six walks, forcing Pirates pitchers to deal with action on the bases pretty much all afternoon.

“Last year, we had such a tough lineup because we would grind out tough at-bats and we would make pitchers throw pitches,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Making pitchers throw pitches, it’s kind of overrated because you don’t want to take good pitches to hit. You also don’t want to swing at bad pitches. I think a lot in the beginning of the season, whether I’ve been (in) there or watching, obviously I’m guilty of this as well, but I think we’re swinging at pitchers’ pitches early in the count instead of taking those. If it’s a strike, oh well, it’s strike one. But if it’s a ball, now you’re up 1-0.

“I think last year we did a really good job of that, not so much working to get the pitcher out by the fifth inning but working him to make a mistake. The further you go into the game and the further they go into the game with hard innings, they’re apt to make more mistakes. And I think today we did a good job of that. The next step now is to get a few hits with runners out there. But you’ve got to get them on first before you get those hits.”

That was part of the message that Johnson had given his players in his team meeting prior to yesterday’s game. Johnson has said for weeks that he felt that players have been trying to do too much instead of just taking what came to them and trusting their teammates to get the job done. If that meant taking a walk with a runner in scoring position or hitting a ball to the right side to move someone over, that’s what needed to be done.

The Nats did a better job of that yesterday.

“Not one person can win the game every day,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes you’re going to walk and you’re going to have to let your teammate behind you do it. I think there might have been a little of that going on. I don’t think it was over the top, or that was a huge problem. But it’s better that way than people not trying enough. We just, all of us, including myself, we just need to learn how to tone it down a little and let the game come to us and not try to go and get it.”

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