There are winning streaks in which a team completely dominates its opponents in every facet of the game. And then there are streaks like the one the Nationals carried into Tuesday night, the ones patched together by the occasional two-out single or fortuitous bounce down the line.
Washington had won seven in a row entering the second game of a four-game set with the Diamondbacks, but five of those wins were decided by one run. Four were won with a late-inning rally. Three ended in walk-off fashion. And two stretched into the 11th inning.
On Tuesday night, the Nationals were given a much-needed reprieve. Stephen Strasburg allowed only three hits over eight masterful innings, Ian Desmond drove in four runs and Washington crushed Arizona, 8-1.
Strasburg’s performance saved the bullpen, which had been leaned upon heavily in recent days, while a six-run third inning provided all of the support the right-hander needed. With the win, the Nationals pushed their league-leading winning streak to eight games and maintained a six-game lead over the Braves in the National League East.
On Tuesday, they played with confidence befitting a team with the best record in the National League.
“Things are starting to come together,” Desmond said. “I wouldn’t say ‘confidence’ is the word. I just think we’re kind of coming together. We’ve kind of established our way, I guess you could say.”
This time, it started with Strasburg. He gave up a solo home run to the third batter he faced, right fielder David Peralta, but otherwise held the Diamondbacks to stray hits in the second and fourth innings. He was unusually efficient, throwing only 95 pitches over eight innings and striking out just four batters.
Strasburg said the low strikeout count was a result of Arizona tendencies, not a change in his approach.
“I pitched them the say way I do everybody,” he said. “I think they’re a team that doesn’t strike out much, and they’re going to put the ball in play. And I think that worked in my favor tonight.”
Strasburg has long been a victim of poor run support; the Nationals had scored two runs or fewer in 16 of his first 26 starts this year. But Tuesday was different.
In the third inning, the Nationals cycled through their batting order, beginning and ending with Denard Span. Span singled and stole second base to start the inning. Four singles and a walk followed. Washington’s most recent addition, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, stepped to the plate with no outs and the bases loaded. He cleared them with a double to the gap in right-center field.
“That’s what I try to do,” Cabrera said. “They bring me here to help the team and that’s what I try to do. Every game I try to do my best.”
Desmond knocked in two runs during the third-inning rally, then brought home two more in the sixth to push Washington’s lead to 8-1. In the NL this season, only Giancarlo Stanton, Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Upton have more RBI than Desmond’s 77.
“It’s a good year,” Manager Matt Williams said. “He’s been in position, whether it’s been fifth, sixth or seventh, to drive runs in for us. And he’s taking advantage of that.”
Strasburg returned to the mound in the seventh and retired the final five batters he faced before giving way to Jerry Blevins in the ninth. Williams said Strasburg, in more compelling circumstances, could have finished out the game.
“The way Stephen pitched I hope is indicative to what we’re going to see in the future,” Desmond said. “He’s been great a lot in his career, but tonight was one of those games where he was really fun to watch.”
Blevins sat down the Diamondbacks in order in the ninth to bring the game to an anticlimactic end. While players exchanged high-fives in the grass, the rest of the relievers strolled in from the bullpen.
There were no Gatorade baths or mobs on the infield this time, but it was still a win. And after the past week, it was a welcome change.