ATLANTA - The ball cracked off his bat at 105 mph and soared on a 420-foot journey over the left field bullpen at SunTrust Park. And as the big slugger rounded the bases, the visitors’ dugout roared with approval and formed its customary dance line to greet the man who had just clubbed this no-doubt home run.
And then Stephen Strasburg danced.
It was awkward, to be sure. And it required some help from Gerardo Parra, the veteran outfielder who started this whole home run dance phenomenon earlier this summer. But the stoic Strasburg held up his end of the bargain and managed to crack a smile along the way.
“To be honest, it was pretty nervewracking,” he said afterward. “I didn’t really have anything. I’m not a big dancer to begin with.”
Really, though, if ever Strasburg was going to have fun, this was the night. The greatest night of his hitting career, when he achieved offensive success seen only once before by a pitcher in the last 46 years with three hits and five RBIs. Not to mention a decent night at his day job: 5 1/3 strong innings against an elite Braves lineup before he ran out of gas in the sixth.
Put it all together, and the Nationals had all kinds of reason to enjoy this 13-4 thumping of Atlanta in the opener of a four-game series that is critical to their hopes of chasing down the National League East leaders.
With a definitive statement on the road, the Nats improved to an MLB-best 32-13 since May 24 and moved to within 5 1/2 games of the Braves (only four back in the loss column).
And they’ve already established they can take care of business here in Atlanta. The Nationals are now 3-0 at SunTrust Park this season, having won their last two games in this park by a combined score of 27-8.
“They came out ready to play today,” manager Davey Martinez said.
There were no shortage of contributors to this one. Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Victor Robles all delivered RBI extra-base hits during an eight-inning top of the third. But none of them could match the offensive feats of their pitcher, who may never experience anything like this again in his life.
Strasburg has had his moments at the plate. He hit .277 with four doubles, a homer and seven RBIs in 2012 to win the NL Silver Slugger Award. He clubbed two homers in 2017.
“His swing path, he stays through the zone really good,” Martinez said. “And (when) he’s able to make contact, he makes hard contact.”
Tonight, Strasburg took his offensive game to a whole new level.
He ignited the third-inning rally when he led off with a single, then scampered 270 feet around the bases when Ronald Acuña Jr. couldn’t make a diving catch off Eaton’s sinking liner to left, the ball rolling to the wall.
Who knew that wouldn’t come close to representing the highlight of Strasburg’s inning? His spot in the order came up again, this time with two on and two out and the Nats having already plated five runs. And then he pounced on Touki Toussaint’s 1-0 fastball and sent it soaring 420 feet over the bullpen for his fourth career homer.
“Wow,” Martinez said when asked what he was thinking as he watched this, “he does have pop!”
Strasburg took his time to round the bases, having just given his team an 8-1 lead, and having just given his teammates more reason to get excited for the dugout dance line than perhaps they’ve been all year.
“He’s the guy,” Parra said. “He’s done it before. Only he’s never danced (on) TV. ... We move to him. It’s not easy, this guy. But this guy right now enjoys the party. And I’m happy for him.”
“I had to watch that one,” Martinez said. “It was definitely a moment.”
“Did he say when the last time he danced was?” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman asked. “Stras isn’t much of a dancer. His wedding might have been the last time he danced. But I would love to see him dance every time he starts. That’s fine with me.”
But wait, Strasburg still wasn’t done at the plate. He came up to bat again in the fifth and proceeded to single through the left-side hole to drive in two more runs and extend the lead to 10-1. That gave him five RBIs for the game, most by a pitcher in club history and most by any MLB pitcher since Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
And then there’s this nugget: Strasburg became only the second pitcher since the DH was instituted in 1973 to have three hits, a homer and five RBIs, joining the Diamondbacks’ Micah Owings from 2007.
“That’s just how crazy this game is,” he said. “Obviously my focus is going out there and trying to keep the other team at bay. But sometimes you just run into the ball. I’ve always been told that a swinging bat’s a dangerous one. So I was just able to connect on one.”
All of this was nice, of course, and reason to enjoy the night. But the No. 1 reason the Nationals enjoyed this night was plastered on the big scoreboard in center field. They knew how important it was to set a positive tone for the weekend in tonight’s series opener.
It would be difficult to conjure up a more positive outcome than this.
“Today is great,” Zimmerman said. “We’ll celebrate like we did after the game today, but this is going to mean nothing for the game tomorrow. They’re a team that’s won a lot of games the last couple years. They are a very talented team. So we’re going to have to come out tomorrow and execute and do things like we did today to have a chance to beat them.”