TORONTO — The Nationals left Washington a week ago knowing the task ahead. Six games against the pressure-cooker that is the American League East. The start of a 15-game stretch against the division often referred to as the best in baseball. A test, they knew, of their mettle as a young upstart.
As the sun drenched the field at Rogers Centre on Wednesday afternoon, their ace throwing six dominant innings against the Toronto Blue Jays and their latest contributor — a lesser-known rookie with a Southern drawl thick as molasses — banging the ball all over the park in a 6-2 win, they could reflect on the previous six days.
An undefeated multicity road trip for the first time in organizational history. A 38-23 record. And a new hero every night.
“It gives you confidence,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the only man who’s been on the team long enough to know how that confidence can also be beaten out of them.
“It gives you confidence that we can go anywhere, play anyone,” he added. “In the past, I don’t think that’s been the deal. This year is different.
“In years past, we had to play an absolutely perfect game to win. Now you can make some mistakes and we can overcome them with the talent that we have on our team.”
It’s talent that allows for a day like Wednesday. A morning when manager Davey Johnson stumbles into the training room and sees first baseman Adam LaRoche getting his right foot worked on after a foul ball did some damage, subs in rookie Tyler Moore and watches him go 3-for-4 with a double and the first two home runs of his career to drive in five runs.
Its talent that makes it a minor matter for Zimmerman and Michael Morse, two of the Nationals‘ biggest bats, to be a combined 8-for-44 the last 11 games while the team has scored 42 runs and won nine times.
“Our veterans have not been doing the things they’re capable of,” Johnson said after his team won its 14th series of the season. “But that’s the good news. You know they’re going to do it. And the young guys are going to spur them on and make them do it. I sure like what I’m seeing.”
There wasn’t much not to like on Wednesday as Stephen Strasburg threw six dominant innings. He would have gone longer, would have dented his season innings limit by at least one or two more, but a minor cut on the nail of the middle finger of his right hand prompted the Nationals to pull him.
Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty had an unfriendly-looking conversation in the dugout following the sixth with Strasburg at 89 pitches, having allowed just two earned runs on five hits and one walk. He became the first pitcher in the major leagues to reach 100 strikeouts, doing so in just 77 innings and having walked only 20 batters this season.
And he improved to 8-1 thanks in large part to Moore, a 25-year-old who’s hit 71 home runs in the minor leagues since 2010. Moore tried not to smile. He tried to stifle his emotions, to focus on putting his right foot in front of his left as he made the 360-foot trip around the bases. But the relief of the moment finally got to him as he crossed home plate.
“Just finally barreled one up and got it over,” said Moore, who is hitting .500 in his second major league stint this season, compared to a .158 average in limited playing time during his first call-up. “Just glad to help this team out.”
Then he did it again. “You gotta be kidding me,” he thought, as his second home run sailed over the center-field wall.
In the dugout, LaRoche wandered over to Johnson and told him he’d readily accept thanks. Zimmerman commended him for his managerial tactics. All the while, Strasburg put up inning after inning of zeroes, sandwiched around a second inning that featured a triple and a Jose Bautista home run for the Blue Jays‘ only runs.
“I feel like we’re building,” Moore said. “And it keeps getting better. It’s a fun, fun place to be.”
Next up, the New York Yankees.
“I said in August, ‘If we play up to our potential and the young guys do things they’re capable of doing, we can contend and win the pennant,’” Johnson said. “We started a little slow. We’re starting to pick up and we’re showing [that] we knew we could do it.
“I think we’re no longer a secret to anybody. We’re a pretty good ballclub.”