Postgame analysis of the Nationals 2-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night:
How it happened: The two offenses were quieted for most of the early innings, with Cardinals rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz's solo home run proving to be the difference through 5 1/2 frames.
But that's when Bryce Harper chose an opportune time to break out of his four-game hitless streak. The Nats' right fielder hit a towering solo shot — his 12th on the season — to tie the game in the sixth. That was followed by another solo homer in the following inning, this time by Danny Espinosa, to give Washington a 2-1 lead.
In the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon came in and retired the side in order, sending the Nats home victors.
What it means: The Nats move to 29-19 after notching their fourth win against the Cards this season. The victory also marked the 1,700th of Dusty Baker's managerial career, which ranks 17th all-time. He's second in career wins among active skippers to San Francisco Giants' Bruce Bochy.
Joe Ross returns to form: Ross put together what was perhaps his best outing in nearly a month. He limited the Cardinals to one run on six hits over 7 innings, struck out four and issued one walk. Surprisingly, Ross' ERA now sits at 2.52, which leads the Nats rotation.
After day off, Harper goes yard: In his first two at-bats against Leake, it appeared that Harper's month-long slump would continue for another night. He struck out in the first inning after being ahead 3-0 in the count, then weakly tapped a grounder to second base in the fourth. But the third time was the charm for the reigning NL MVP, who launched a majestic 434 foot-bomb to the third deck in right field. Who knows if this means Harper's finally out of his funk, but it's a start.
Up next: The second of this four-game set between these two clubs takes place Friday night at 7:05 p.m. The Nats will lean on Max Scherzer (5-3, 3.80 ERA), while the Cardinals will send lefty Jaime Garcia (3-4, 3.59 ERA) to the bump.
Amid a torrid start to his season, Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy will be given the night off by manager Dusty Baker for Thursday's series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 31-year-old Murphy — a revelation since he signed with the Nats in January at three years, $37.5 million — leads the majors with a .394 batting average and is second with a 1.043 on-base plus slugging mark.
"He's been more than I think anybody dreamed that he would be," Baker said before Thursday's game.
Even more amazing is that Murphy wasn't even the Nats' first option during baseball''s Hot Stove season. Baker mentioned that Washington's original target at that spot was Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who was nearly traded to D.C. were it not for the team's reluctance to extend the veteran's contract. The Nats were also reportedly in on Ben Zobrist, who signed with the Chicago Cubs at four years, $56 million.
Given the early returns, suffice it say that Murphy is undoubtedly one of the best bargains of the offseason.
"I'm glad we got Daniel Murphy," Baker said. "Big time....I don't think we could have done much better with a player [in free agency] than Murphy."
Mostly known as a good-but-not-great hitter throughout most of his seven-year tenure with the New York Mets, Murphy showed signs of a breakout during the latter part of 2015 after he altered his batting stance. Per a suggestion from Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, Murphy went to more of a crouch and crept up on the plate a little more. The tweak allowed him to pull the ball more and leverage his knack for making contact, which created a power stroke that hasn't dissipated since.
The change, while crucial to Murphy's impressive season, is also part of the reason he'll be monitored from time to time. But that's something Baker and the Nats are more than willing to accommodate him on — especially if he keeps putting up these kinds of numbers.
"We [have] to watch him to keep his legs strong because he's always in a squat," Baker said. "So [the time off] is a day to get his legs worked on and get everything back strong 'till the next day off."
Nats (28-18) vs. Carinals (24-23) at Nationals Park
The Nationals welcome the St. Louis Cardinals to town on Thursday for the first of a four-game series. Joe Ross (3-4, 2.70) will face the Cardinals for the second time this season, having allowed one run through six innings in a Nats win on April 30.
Opposite Ross will be right-hander Mike Leake, whom the Nationals showed interest in during this past winter's free agency. He is 3-3 with a 4.07 ERA this season. Leake faced the Nats on April 29 and fave up five earned runs in seve innings in a Nats' win.
Both teams will be without star infielders in this one. Daniel Murphy is getting the day off to rest, while Cardinals All-Star Matt Carpenter is out for a few days as his wife gives birth.
First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, XM 183
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cardinals - Mike Leake
CF Ben Revere
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
1B Ryan Zimmerman
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
2B Stephen Drew
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Joe Ross
CF Jeremy Hazelbaker
SS Aledmys Diaz
1B Matt Adams
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Brandon Moss
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
3B Greg Garcia
RHP Mike Leake