Jackson's gem kicks off homestand

Jackson's gem kicks off homestand

As the rest of the sporting world worries about Stephen Strasburg's impending shutdown and the supposedly crushing effect it will have on the Nationals' championship aspirations, other members of the majors' best rotation simply takes the mound and does their part to carry this team to new heights.

The national discussion about the Nationals' rotation has been focused on Strasburg, with perhaps a little bit of love sprinkled in for Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. All the while, Edwin Jackson has quietly gone about his business, churning out innings and getting stronger and more effective as the regular season reaches its final month.

"People keep talking about Stras. You know, Edwin Jackson is a heck of a pitcher," Jayson Werth said following Thursday night's 8-1 triumph over the Cardinals. "He's a big-game pitcher. He won big games last year, late in the year, in the postseason. Take Stras out and put Edwin in. I like it."

What's not to like? With eight dominant innings Thursday night against the NL's most productive lineup, Jackson continued his late-August surge and carried the Nationals to a rousing victory in the opener of an 11-game homestand.

The man who has occupied the No. 4 slot in the Nationals' rotation all season -- and will be bumped up to No. 3 once Strasburg is shut down in the next week or two -- now sports a 2.79 ERA over his last eight starts and has struck out at least eight batters in five of those outings.

This latest start rivaled any Jackson has made this season. He allowed only four hits, struck out 10 and didn't let a St. Louis player get past second base until his eighth and final inning of work.

"That was a gem," manager Davey Johnson said. "I mean, good-hitting ballclub, and he had electric stuff."

Facing many of his teammates from last year's World Series championship roster, Jackson took advantage of his familiarity with St. Louis' lineup and made some talented hitters look downright foolish flailing away at his diverse repertoire.

"I think it helped, yeah," catcher Jesus Flores said. "He had a lot of confidence in what he was doing out there. We really talked about every hitter before the game, and he executed everything he said."

Jackson downplayed the ex-teammate angle.

"They know me. I know them," he said. "At the end of the day, I always say it's a matter of going out and executing. And when you get run support like I did tonight, it definitely doesn't hurt if you want to go out and execute with a lead."

Run support has been something of a foreign concept to Jackson this season. In his nine losses, the Nationals have scored a total of 14 runs. So imagine the right-hander's delight when his teammates exploded for eight runs off Cardinals pitching Thursday night.

The offensive attack was consistent throughout the evening, but it was ignited by the first two Nationals who stepped to the plate. Jayson Werth led off the bottom of the first by drawing a five-pitch walk, then Bryce Harper turned on a 2-0 meatball from Jaime Garcia and sent it flying into the right-field bullpen for his third homer in 24 hours.

That was merely the beginning of a big night for the Nationals' 1-2 hitters. Combined, Werth and Harper produced four hits (two of them homers), a walk, five RBI and four runs scored.

Add in their performances Wednesday night in Miami, and the Werth-Harper combo is now 8 for their last 19 with four homers, nine RBI and seven runs scored.

"I love hitting behind him," Harper said. "Like I said before, he sets the tone early and he really fires me up and gets me going. Having him hit in front of us really sets the tone for everybody."

Werth's return from a broken wrist at the start of the month has been nothing short of remarkable: In 25 games, he's hitting .337 with a .408 on-base percentage and .478 slugging percentage.

That latter number was boosted Thursday night when the veteran outfielder connected for his first home run since suffering the injury, a towering blast over the left-field bullpen to lead off the fifth inning.

Having been through major wrist injuries earlier in his career, Werth admittedly had some concern about his ability to regain a power stroke once he returned from this DL stint. Early in the rehab process, though, he made the decision to switch to a lighter bat, dropping 1 12 ounces, and the difference has been noticeable.

"Immobilized for that long, you lose a lot of strength," he said. "And I still feel like I haven't gained it all back yet. I went to the lighter bat, but my swing's been good since coming off the rehab and I like where I'm at. You know, it's not always about hitting homers. I think those will come. That's just a matter of being in good position and getting a good pitch."

Whatever Werth is doing right now, it's working. And it's making a significant difference for a Nationals lineup that -- when healthy -- boasts seven players capable of hitting at least 20 homers over a big-league season.

That kind of top-to-bottom production only makes the task easier for a pitching staff that on Thursday shut down the NL's statistically best lineup.

"Obviously they've got the best offense in the league," Johnson said. "But they're going to have to hit against a pretty good pitching staff."

Bryce Harper cut up his batting gloves so they wouldn't be sold online

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Bryce Harper cut up his batting gloves so they wouldn't be sold online

When Bryce Harper came to the plate sans batting gloves for his third at-bat on Thursday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, the move appeared to be his latest attempt to break out of his month-long slump. With the gloves on, he had struck out and weakly grounded out in his prior chances, so perhaps this was just another trick to try and get him out of his funk. 

Cameras even caught Harper ripping his gloves in the dugout apart just before the plate appearance, so it was clear this was not an accident. But as he revealed after the game, while it was done intentionally, it wasn't for the reasons you'd think. 

"Nah, it's just so people don't sell them on eBay to tell you the truth," Harper said afterward. 

Huh? EBay?

"I always cut the batting gloves up," he continued, "and [they] ripped on the top of the hand and [I] had the bat boy come in and give me another pair and put them on and ripped them again."

Regardless of the motivations, going glove-less worked; Harper launched a mammoth home run to the third deck to tie the game, which marked his first long ball in nearly two weeks. 

"I guess the baseball gods don't want me to wear the batting gloves right now," he quipped. "I went up and hit a homer and came back and cut 'em up just so guys don't come out of the trash can and grab 'em and sell 'em. It's happened before."

Alrighty then. Apparently people have been trying to auction off Harper memorabilia before he was able to put a stop to it. So if you're looking to sell some game-worn Harper batting gloves, it sounds like you won't be finding any in the trash cans near the Nats dugout. 

Harper, Espinosa solo home runs back Ross as Nats top Cardinals

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Harper, Espinosa solo home runs back Ross as Nats top Cardinals

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. 

Dusty Baker: Daniel Murphy 'more than I think anybody dreamed that he would be'

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Dusty Baker: Daniel Murphy 'more than I think anybody dreamed that he would be'

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."