ATLANTA — When the Washington Nationals packed up and left D.C. last Sunday afternoon, they did so knowing what was in front of them. Three division rivals, nine games, 10 days. It was part challenge, part opportunity.
The challenge, of course, was playing the first of 18 games against divisional opponents before July 1. The opportunity: to announce themselves to a division in which they've spent almost their entire existence in the basement.
What they found in their first two stops of this trip, in Philadelphia and Atlanta, are teams that appear ill-prepared or unable to match them. They've found a division using them as the measuring stick, instead of the other way around.
In beating the Atlanta Braves 8-4 on Saturday afternoon at Turner Field, the Nationals overcame a laborious effort from their ace, lost a four-run lead and then promptly took it back. They hit the Braves' starter and best relievers, weren't felled by lefty-lefty matchups and rapped out 10 or more hits for the 17th time this season. On the second straight day, their offense scored early and late to put up more than seven runs, and it didn't matter that Stephen Strasburg struggled.
"That's what we have to do," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who seemed to indicate earlier this week in Philadelphia that even he felt these games in Atlanta carried a bit more weight given the standings.
"Coming in here, they arguably had been playing as well as anybody in the league, maybe in baseball. To spank them in their home park, it's big. We know them pretty good from spring training. We know how good they are."
But the Braves, like the Nationals and the Phillies, are dealing with significant losses due to injuries. Maybe the Nationals are catching these teams at the right time to distance themselves further from them in the standings. But the win-loss column holds no sympathy for circumstance.
It would have had no sympathy for Strasburg's command issues, which reached such uncharacteristic proportions that Johnson was shocked to look up and see his ace had thrown almost as many balls (38) as strikes (39) through four innings of work. He lasted just five innings, surrendering four runs on six hits and four walks with six strikeouts.
"Just sometimes I just can't find the strike zone and I was struggling with it all day," Strasburg said. "I was trying to figure out what I was doing mechanically that was causing me to cut the ball across the plate and pretty much just yank it every single time. I'd try one thing and it wouldn't work, I'd try another thing and it wouldn't work. Just one of those days."
But the Nationals' offense took care of him, a small bit of payback, perhaps, for all of the games the team's starters were criminally unsupported in early this season. With Danny Espinosa's three-run homer to give them an early cushion, and Bryce Harper's solo home run to keep them adding on late, the Nationals picked up their fourth win in the last five games.
"I think this is what we're really capable of," Espinosa said, himself hitting .283 with 10 extra-base hits [six doubles, four homers] in his last 17 games. "More power, more runs. We have a lot of really good hitters on this team. I think the slow start was just, baseball, I guess."
It doesn't hurt, either, that Washington had the luxury of adding the most hyped power-hitting prospect in a generation and has enjoyed watching him flourish at the major league level.
Harper hit his third home run of the season Saturday — first to the opposite field — and also hustled into second on a routine single earlier in the game when he saw Braves right fielder Jason Heyward loafing after the ball. It was scored a single and an error on Heyward, who bobbled the ball once he noticed Harper continuing to second base.
In 26 major league games, Harper has hit .278, slugged .495 and gotten on base at a .366 clip. He's aware of his reputation for being a slow starter, but since he's arrived in the major leagues, it has hardly appeared to be an issue. Still, after he hit his third home run, one Johnson called a "rocket" to left in the seventh inning off one of the best left-handed relievers in the game in Jonny Venters, Harper made mention of his track record as a slow starter.
"I think it's just a matter of time before I get going," Harper said.
The Nationals seem to be on the brink of getting healthier. Michael Morse's return is impending, Brad Lidge, too. Drew Storen and Jayson Werth aren't expected to be all that far behind. For now, though, they're 4-1 at the start of a pivotal road trip, 28-18 overall and 10-3 in the National League East.
[The strong start to the road trip] is important," Espinosa said. "It gives you momentum, it gives you the confidence as a team to go out there and just play — and have a feeling that we're going to win, that we're good, we're hot and we're going to go out there and beat anybody."
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