Instant Analysis: Nats take first game vs. Marlins

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Instant Analysis: Nats take first game vs. Marlins

Nationals 7, Marlins 4

Game in a nutshell: For the second time in two weeks, the Nationals summoned John Lannan from Syracuse to start one half of a doubleheader. And for the second time in two weeks, the left-hander delivered. He wasn't quite as sharp as his July 23 outing against the Braves, but Lannan tossed six-plus innings to earn the quality start and improve to 2-0 for the season. He was bolstered by an early offensive explosion that featured another home run from Adam LaRoche, a two-run single from Mark DeRosa and a whole lotta production from the heart of the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and LaRoche combined to go 6-for-9 with two doubles, a homer and five walks. And though it took some finagling of the bullpen late to seal this one, the Nationals emerged with a relatively easy win over a self-imploding Marlins club in the first game of tonight's twinbill.

Hitting highlight: Everything's coming up LaRoche! After a 3-hit, 2-RBI performance Thursday night, the veteran first baseman brought out the big stick again for this one. He picked up three more hits, including his 21st homer of the season, and added three more RBI to raise his team-leading total to 67. Combine the two games, and LaRoche drove in a run four times in a span of six at-bats. Not bad. Also not bad: LaRoche's numbers over a longer stretch. In 14 games since July 20, he's hitting .396 with five homers and 12 RBI.

Pitching highlight: The Nationals really couldn't have asked for much more than they've gotten from Lannan in these two fill-in starts. He reached the seventh inning both times, held the opposition to three runs or less both times, allowed a total of nine hits in 13 innings and kept his pitch count relatively low. Lannan did battle some command issues in this game, issuing five walks (three in the first two innings). But he retired 13 of 14 batters at one point and effectively pitched with a big lead, going right after the Marlins. If these two outings don't convince the Nats he's capable of taking over Stephen Strasburg's rotation spot in September, nothing will.

Key stat: The Marlins pitching staff has issued 13 bases-loaded walks this season, more than any other team in the majors, including two today.

Up next: They're already warming up for Game 2! Gio Gonzalez faces Josh Johnson in a game that will begin in approximately 25 minutes.

Nats' Strasburg's consistency continues with franchise-best 9-0 start

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Nats' Strasburg's consistency continues with franchise-best 9-0 start

Exactly when Stephen Strasburg reached a turning point over the last nine or so months depends on whom you ask and where you look. 

Based solely on the numbers, Strasburg has been a different pitcher ever since he returned from the disabled list last August. In his 21 outings since Aug. 8, 2015, Strasburg is 15-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 182 strikeouts and 28 walks in 140 innings pitched.

For Jayson Werth, there was a noticeable change in Strasburg this spring training.

"He came in and he just had a good feel to him. He looked a little bigger, like he was in real good shape. He was talking a lot, which is always a good sign from him. He doesn’t always say too much," Werth said. 

"It just kind of felt like he was going to have a big year. So far, so good. He’s looked great. Obviously, I think the contract has helped… free agency can mess with some guys’ heads sometimes. He’s not going to have to deal with that."

For batterymate Wilson Ramos, the change in Strasburg is in the details. It's in his health and the way he works around trouble during his starts.

"He’s got a different mindset," Ramos said through an interpreter. "I know in the past his injuries have affected his performance out there. He’s always been a great starter for us. But before this year, it seemed like when he gets behind a run or two his morale would drop. This year, he stays optimistic out there and keeps attacking hitters no matter if he gives up a run or two. He’s very aggressive and it’s shown. He’s doing a great job for us out there."

Whatever the reason or the timing, Strasburg has found a new level of consistency this year, as the Nationals have won all 11 of his starts and at a perfect 9-0, he has the best record to begin a season in franchise history. That bests the 8-0 start for Pedro Martinez back in 1997 when he was with the Expos.

All of Strasburg's last 15 outings have resulted in a Nationals victory. This season he's gone at least six innings in all of his starts and only three times has he allowed more than two runs.

In Sunday's series finale against the Cardinals, Strasburg did what he's become increasingly prone to do. He allowed just one run across six innings and scattered six hits and two walks. The lone run came on a Brandon Moss homer in the fourth inning and that was the only extra-base hit he allowed on the day.

Almost every time the Cardinals threatened, he quickly stopped the bleeding and got the Nationals' defense off the field. 

"He's certainly earning his money," manager Dusty Baker said. "This is big for him, for him and us. He's been trying to figure out probably for a couple years why he's not a big winner because he has the stuff to be a big winner."

Becoming a 'big winner' requires some help, of course, and Strasburg is getting plenty of it. In his 11 starts this season the Nationals are averaging seven runs per game. 

That will take the pressure off.

"The guys swung the bats good today. I was just happy to give them a chance," Strasburg said.

Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

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Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 10-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Sometimes in baseball all it takes is a second look at a pitcher and on Sunday the difference between the Nationals' first run through the lineup and their second against Cardinals starter Michael Wacha was quite significant.

For the first three innings, the Nats were held hitless, the only baserunner earned on a walk to Wilson Ramos. But then in the fourth, things quickly devolved for Wacha. The Cardinals right-hander gave up two hits to lead off the frame, the second to score a run. He then allowed a two-RBI single to Ramos with two outs.

The three runs in the fourth off Wacha gave them the lead, but a five-run seventh inning put this one on ice for the Nationals. Anthony Rendon led off with a solo homer and Jayson Werth cleaned up the rest with a pinch-hit grand slam. It was Werth's sixth career grand slam and his first ever as a pinch-hitter. It was also just the second pinch-hit grand slam in Nats' history following Justin Maxwell's in September of 2007. You don't see them very often.

Ramos then added a two-run homer in the eighth to make it 10-2. It was Ramos' third hit of the day.

Ten runs were more than enough help for Stephen Strasburg and the Nats' bullpen. Strasburg gave up one run on a homer to Brandon Moss, but otherwise limited damage throughout the afternoon with six hits and two walks spread across six strong innings. Strasburg now has the best start in franchise history at 9-0.

The Nats' bullpen ran into some trouble in the seventh with a bases-loaded jam with one out, but Felipe Rivero escaped the frame with just one run allowed and a lead intact. The run came on a sac fly by Matt Adams, but all things considered, it could have been much, much worse. 

What it means: The Nationals closed their homestand on a positive note as they get set for an 11-day road trip, which is tied for the longest one they have this season. They also finished their season series against the Cardinals with a 5-2 record. That's a nice change of course after they went 8-18 against them from 2012 through 2015.

Rendon smacks homer No. 4: Rendon added an insurance run in the eighth inning with a solo home run to right field on the first pitch he saw from reliever Jonathan Broxton. After having zero homers in April, Rendon has four this month. He has reached safely in 20 of his last 22 games. In 18 games going back to May 10, Rendon is 24-for-63 (.381) with two homers, six doubles, a triple, 10 RBI, 12 walks, 11 runs and three steals. He posted his 10th multi-hit outing of that 18-game stretch. Even taking Saturday night off did not cool him down.

Ramos hits No. 6: Ramos reached base four times on Sunday with a walk and three hits in three at-bats. He hit a two-run bomb to left field in the eighth inning, his sixth homer of the season. Ramos is now batting .336 through 40 games this season.

Zimmerman gets another XBH: After going 4-for-4 with two homers on Saturday night, Zimmerman notched another extra-base hit on Sunday with his double in the fourth inning. Zimmerman now has 10 doubles on the season and 14 extra-base hits in May after posting just four in April. The problem for Zimmerman has been consistency this season in putting together more than two solid games in a row. Just last week he had two hits in consecutive games on May 23-24, then went hitless in four straight outings. On May 10 he had two homers, but that was during a stretch where he went 5-for-37 across nine games. It has truly been feast or famine for the Nats' first baseman this season.

Harper drives in a run: Harper's RBI single to score Michael Taylor in the fourth inning gave him his fourth straight game with a hit. He also has an RBI in five of his last eight games despite only having four hits during that stretch. Harper has scored a run in four straight outings. Overall, though, it was another frustrating day for Harper, who went 1-for-4 with a strikeout. After he popped out in the sixth, he was shown on a television replay chucking his batting helmet in the dugout.

Strasburg left in, then pulled: Strasburg's exit after six innings was part of some creative managing for Dusty Baker. He sent Strasburg out to start the seventh after 104 pitches, but then brought in Oliver Perez before Strasburg even threw a pitch in the inning. He called on Perez once Cardinals manager Mike Matheny brought in Kolten Wong as a pinch-hitter. And once Matheny saw Perez come in, he replaced Wong with Aledmys Diaz to pinch-hit. There was a pitching change and two pinch-hitters inserted into the game all before a single pitch was thrown. The Nats, by the way, have now won all 11 of Strasburg's starts this season and 15 in a row dating back to 2015.

Up next: The Nats embark on a long road trip beginning with three games in Philly. They play three at the Phillies, then three at the Reds and White Sox. Monday night will be a 7:05 p.m. start with Tanner Roark (3-4, 2.71) set to pitch opposite Phillies right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (4-3, 3.97).

Cardinals manager Matheny on pitching to Bryce Harper

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Cardinals manager Matheny on pitching to Bryce Harper

Atop the majors with a 23.4 walk percentage, Bryce Harper is being pitched around more often than anyone this season. Both that approach from opposing teams and his struggles with not getting pitches to hit have been well-documented.

The St. Louis Cardinals, however, have been an outlier this season when it comes to how they've handled Harper. He's only walked twice in 25 plate appearances against them. That's an eight percent walk rate, about a third of his season average. He's struck out in 32 percent of his PAs against the Cardinals (8 SO in 25 PA) - much higher than his 18 percent season average - and is batting just .130 through six games vs. the Cards. Only the Mets have held him to a lower OPS than the .591 mark he has against St. Louis.

The Cardinals have been pitching to Harper and it hasn't hurt them all that much. He has three hits in six games and two are homers, but both were solo shots.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny spoke about the team's approach to Harper this weekend.

"Typically, a solo home run shouldn't beat you," Matheny said. "We do pitch him carefully. We have in the past and we'll continue to. A lot of it has to do with how he's swinging at the time and what the matchups look like and who's hitting around him. All that goes into the decision."

"We've had a little success against him, not that that's always going to continue because he's a good hitter, but when we had him at home we were pitching him tough and we were able to get outs. When you're able to do that, you try to stick with the approach that's working."

A 13-year MLB veteran before he went into coaching, Matheny was a catcher during the days of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and then when Barry Bonds was setting records with the San Francisco Giants.

Matheny knows there comes a time when hitters can get so hot there is just no point in pitching to them.

"Who's a guy we want to stay away from, is there somebody in the lineup you don't want to beat you and is there enough depth to where you can't do that?… Bonds had good players around him, but when he was hot there were just times where he just wasn't going to [allowed to] beat you. I could see Harper being viewed the same way," Matheny said.

"There were times in Barry Bonds' career was the best player on the planet and you couldn't get him out… There were times when Sammy was the hottest hitter in baseball and you just weren't going to let him beat you. I don't care who was hitting behind him. This kid, obviously he can be included in those kinds of conversations."

Ben Standig contributed to this report