BOSTON — As the night went on, the comparables almost became numbing. The list of Hall of Famers and exceptional performances being uttered as parallels to the ones of the Washington Nationals’ two phenoms Friday night bordered on the unbelievable.
There was Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline and Robin Yount. The last 19-year-olds to hit a home run at Fenway Park, as Bryce Harper did in the fourth inning — Yount the only visitor younger than Harper ever to do so.
There was Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. The former the only pitcher as young as Stephen Strasburg to strike out more hitters at Fenway Park, the latter the last visitor to tally 13.
The Nationals spent the afternoon acquainting themselves with the 100-year-old ballpark, soaking in its history and glancing out at the spots where greats have left their marks. Before the game, Harper recalled a trip here in 2004. When he was 11. The same year David Ortiz was helping propel the Red Sox to their first championship since 1918. Then, in a stadium that has borne witness to so much, Strasburg, Harper and the rest of the Nationals went out and hammered a few more nails into its lore.
The night the Nationals beat the Red Sox 7-4, in a park 58 years older than the two of them combined, was easily the single most dominant combined performance from Washington’s prodigies. For Strasburg, it was a career-high 119 pitches over six innings, two earned runs, four hits, two walks and 13 strikeouts, one shy of his career-best and on the two-year anniversary of that 14-strikeout debut. For Harper, a double, single and a laser two-run homer.
“Oh, it was fun watching,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Harp, what a night he had. It seemed like [Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine] was bringing in the left-handers for him all night and didn’t seem to faze the kid. Harp was real special tonight.”
Strasburg was baffling almost from the start, overcoming a minor hiccup in the second inning, thanks in large part to a home run-robbing catch by Xavier Nady that featured the Red Sox’s only offensive charge until they loaded the bases in the sixth.
His velocity was a tick higher, averaging 96.7 mph after coming in at 95.1 in his previous five outings. And his curveball, after a discussion with Rick Ankiel — owner of one of the game’s best breaking balls for some time — was magnificent, a third-strike pitch for him on six occasions.
“I kind of had a little bit of a breakthrough,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I have to continue to work on and play with. I’m just happy that it’s starting to come back.”
Harper, though, took a bit longer to warm up, going down swinging in his first at-bat against Felix Doubront — the atmosphere and the situation overwhelming him.
“Looking over at that dugout at Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, it’s pretty unbelievable,” Harper said. “Going around the bases [on the double] and Pedroia’s saying great job. I’m 19 years old. I still look at those guys as the guys I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable.”
The awestruck moment didn’t last long. In Harper’s next at-bat, the final one he’d have against Doubront, he sent a 1-1 fastball on a line shot to the center-field seats. It hit the wall above them just right of the 420-foot marker. “I mean, a line shot out there,” Johnson said.
Strasburg and Harper were hardly the only ones. In as dominant an offensive performance as they’ve had this season, the Nationals began pounding away at the Red Sox from the very first batter of the game. Batting right-handed, Danny Espinosa doubled to open the game. He’d add another in the fourth while Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore all joined him with multi-hit nights. In all, the Nationals rapped out 12 hits and seven of them went for extra bases, including doubles by Zimmerman, Desmond and Moore.
They held their breath but once, when Pedroia and Gonzalez reached in the sixth with one out and Ortiz walked on Strasburg’s 106th pitch. Ross Detwiler warmed in the bullpen. Pitching coach Steve McCatty visited the mound. Strasburg then struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kevin Youkilis.
“There’s no way I’m hooking him with the bases loaded,” Johnson said. “I don’t care what his pitch count was. I was going to have to fight ownership if I let him go too long, but I didn’t want to have to fight Stras if I went and took him out.”
The Nationals were practically giddy inside the cramped visitors clubhouse after the game. Ankiel playfully listened in on several interviews. Michael Morse threw powder in the air, a la LeBron James, while Nady spoke with reporters.
“It’s an absolute circus right now,” Nady said.
“That,” Espinosa said, “was a lot of fun.”