Their early-season success was sputtering out as the Washington Nationals entered Sunday's series finale against Baltimore. The Orioles were looking for a sweep in the Battle of the Beltways, which would continue Washington's downward trajectory after racing to a 14-4 record April 25.
Losers of three in a row and five of their past seven, the Nats were running on fumes, a measly 9-13 since the high-water mark. They needed a win badly, not just for pride along the Washington-Baltimore corridor, but also to put a good taste in their mouths entering a brutal stretch of 18 division games and another 13 against the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays.
But that's the purpose of having phenoms on your side, guys who can make things happen when the team is dying for a pick-me-up.
Thankfully for Washington, it has two of the game's best in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, both of whom played huge roles in a soothing 9-3 victory at Nationals Park.
As the staff's ace, Strasburg is expected to snuff losing streaks when he pitches. He usually delivers, as the Nats had lost only twice in his eight starts entering Sunday. But his most-recent outing was the second-worst of his career — four earned runs in four innings against San Diego.
The performance weighed on him so much, he said he overextended himself between starts, which led to tightness and/or fatigue that prompted manager Davey Johnson to lift him after five innings. "If he told me [his biceps] was tight in the first inning, I would've hooked him then," Johnson said.
But by the time the bullpen took over, Strasburg's work was done, having retired the final 10 batters he faced. His offense was pure gravy, including a homer into the Orioles' bullpen, as he went 2 for 2 with two runs scored.
"I want to be that guy they can rely on to get the job done," he said. "At times, I feel like I have to do more to go out there and get the team back on track."
Harper's ability to help the Nats into the win column is greater as an everyday player. However, the opposite is true, too, when his youthful exuberance and aggressive-to-a-fault nature can backfire. That was the case when he dropped a fly ball after unnecessarily calling off left fielder Tyler Moore. The error led to a pair of unearned runs in the second inning.
But the kid giveth and the kid taketh away.
His two-run triple put the Nats on the board in the third inning, and he scored the tying run on Ian Desmond's fielder's choice. Harper scored again in the fifth and eighth innings after reaching on a single and walk, respectively.
"We have a lot of veteran guys that can really pick us up," Harper said, downplaying the expectations surrounding him. "I try to go out there and perform every day the best I can. When you have guys who can swing the bat and they're veteran guys who have been through it, it really helps us young guys and calms us down a little bit more."
Harper and Strasburg provided the calming effect Sunday. The feel-good win against one of baseball's hottest teams was right on time — "We owed them something," Johnson said. It also helped everyone momentarily forget the Nats' recent doldrums.
Now it's off to Philadelphia, where Harper said he hopes to hear some boos and not have any batteries thrown at him. With series against the Braves, Marlins and Mets afterward, the next three weeks will go a long way in determining the NL East standings as the All-Star break approaches.
Washington probably hasn't seen its last three-game losing streak this season, or maybe even its final stretch of five-losses-in-seven-games. Such is the nature of baseball. And the Nats will need more than good health from their ace and their kid for sustained success.
But Strasburg and Harper can be an awesome duo for snapping a losing streak. The Orioles can attest to that.
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