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Nats young stars rise to the occasion

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Nats young stars rise to the occasion

BOSTON -- They've been playing baseball in this cozy little yard for 100 years, and the names who have excelled on this field read like a guest list to some exclusive dinner party in Cooperstown.

Ruth. Cobb. Williams. Mantle. Musial. Yastrzemski. Griffey. Pujols. They all stood in the batter's box at Fenway Park.

Johnson. Grove. Feller. Gibson. Ryan. Clemens. Martinez. They all toed the rubber in the center of this baseball cathedral.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper don't belong among the company of those names, not yet. But the two young stars of the Nationals know the history of this game and know the history of this place. And when they stepped between the white lines at Fenway Park Friday night for the first time during a 7-4 victory over the Red Sox, they knew it was time to state their presence with authority.

"It was unbelievable," said Harper, who went 3-for-5 with a home run and three RBI. "I love those kind of atmospheres ... and I always pretty much rise to the occasion. I love playing in these situations."

"You know that you're playing in one of the most historic ballparks in the game," said Strasburg, who struck out 13 while throwing a career-high 119 pitches. "And to have the sellout crowd like that, it's awesome. It's awesome to go out there and be successful."

Awesome for Harper and Strasburg. And awesome for the Nationals, who with this convincing victory made another emphatic statement about their ever-growing stature as a force that will have to be reckoned with for years to come.

In a ballpark that has seen its share of phenoms shine, and against a franchise that has boasted some of the most well-known players in the sport, a star-studded Washington baseball team marched right in and stole the spotlight before a sellout crowd of 37,309.

Yes, these are strange times indeed. And thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for the first-place Nationals, who got to see their two young studs seize the moment together in a manner no one had seen them do it before.

"Oh! Oh!" manager Davey Johnson exclaimed while talking about Strasburg and Harper's performance. "It was fun watching."

The night actually didn't begin so great for either player. Strasburg labored through a 27-pitch second inning, giving up two runs and putting his team in an early hole. Harper, meanwhile, looked foolish whiffing at a Felix Doubront curveball in the top of the first, striking out with a mighty cut.

"I think I just got a little overwhelmed with the atmosphere and whatnot," Harper said. "It was just a great atmosphere. I think I was just a little too anxious and tried to do a little too much."

But once they got settled in and made some adjustments, each young star flipped the switch and turned dominant.

Two innings after that unsightly strikeout, Harper dug in again against Doubront and laced a double. One inning later, he crushed a 92-mph fastball into the bleachers just to the right of the 420-foot sign in deep right-center.

As Harper raced around the bases upon clubbing his sixth homer in 36 big-league games, a funny thing happened. Whatever responses there were from the crowd were positive. Whether they were Nationals fans who made the weekend trip, Bostonians who simply appreciated the extraordinary feats of a 19-year-old or even members of the Red Sox who complimented him in mid-game, everyone was showering Harper with praise.

"Looking over at that dugout at David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia ... it's pretty unbelievable," Harper said. "Going around the bases and Pedroia's saying: 'Great job,' ... and I'm 19 years old. So I still look at those guys as the guys I grew up watching. It was pretty unbelievable to see that."

The crowd and opponents were less complimentary Strasburg and more in awe of the 23-year-old, who kept getting better and better as the night wore on.

After serving up a two-run double to Mike Aviles in the second, Strasburg retired 11 straight. Of the final 12 outs he record, 10 came on strikeouts.

"He's like a Justin Verlander," Red Sox right fielder Ryan Sweeney said, referring to the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. "But he starts out throwing 97-98 the whole game."

And just when it appeared Strasburg might finally crack during a laborious bottom of the sixth, he dug deep and delivered the big pitches he desperately needed.

With the bases loaded and one out in the inning, Strasburg was already sitting on 106 pitches. He'd never thrown more than 108 in his professional career, but his manager didn't think twice about leaving him out there.

"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."

How did Strasburg respond? He struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a curveball, his 113th pitch of the game. Then he struck out Kevin Youkilis on a 3-2 fastball at the knees that left Youkilis arguing with plate umpire Doug Eddings (and getting ejected for it) and left Strasburg (now 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA) dancing his way back to the dugout at the end of a brilliant, 119-pitch night.

"I mean, I knew it was up there," Strasburg said of his pitch count. "But I had so much adrenaline being in Fenway for the first time, it didn't really matter."

"That's the difference between great pitchers and ones that aren't," Saltalamacchia said. "He just did a great job of getting himself out of jams."

Strasburg's 13th strikeout -- on the two-year anniversary of his 14-strikeout, major-league debut -- represented the emotional climax of the game. The denouement was mostly academic, with Harper coming up a triple shy of the cycle and Tyler Clippard coming into a jam in the bottom of the ninth to record his sixth save.

By that point, many among the sellout crowd had departed. A group of Nationals fans seated near the first-base dugout proudly waved a large banner with the curly W logo; there was nothing the locals could do to respond.

And there was nothing those inside the Red Sox clubhouse could do at the end of the night but shake their heads in amazement at what they had just witnessed firsthand from a couple of of the game's newest stars.

"Two very impressive players," Gonzalez said.

Not to mention a very impressive team, a suddenly relevant franchise from a city not accustomed to baseball excellence, that with each passing day converts a few more believers.

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Mired in a tough season, Revere hopes he can become table setter Nats need

Mired in a tough season, Revere hopes he can become table setter Nats need

Prior to 2016, the notion of having a down season was completely foreign to Ben Revere. All he had been as a big leaguer was the prototypical leadoff man; a sparkplug for the offenses for his previous three teams who hadn’t finished with a batting average lower than .305 since 2013.

But ever since his first regular season swing as a member of the Nationals — one that resulted in an Opening Day oblique injury and a month-long disabled list stint — it seems the 28-year-old centerfielder has spent much of his inaugural campaign in D.C. simply trying to reclaim his old self.

“All [my teammates] say its tough to get your good rhythm in the middle of a season, but I'm out there battling my tail off,” Revere said after an 0-for-5 in Friday night’s 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. “[I’m] definitely coming off a serious injury that could jeopardize your swing a little bit.”

In the two and a half months since Revere’s return from the DL, he hasn’t set the table atop the order like the Nats need him to, slashing .214/.259/.298 with 19 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 60 games. His strikeouts are down, which is the norm for him, but he’s been unusually ineffective when he does make contact. His batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is .230 — the lowest for any Nats hitter with at least 130 at-bats. A big reason for that is because pitchers have negated his speed by inducing him to hit the ball in the air more often. According to Fangraphs.com, his fly ball percentage is up to 27.1, by far a career-high.

“That’s not his game. They want him up in the air,” manager Dusty Baker said. “They don’t want him on the ground. They don’t want him to the opposite field. They want him in the air.”

“I'm seeing the ball good, just results ain't happening,” Revere said. “Missing some pitches, fouling them off usually, I'll hit the other way, hit it up the middle and bean balls into the ground, usually I get out but at least I hit them hard.”

What’s even tougher for Revere is that the team no longer appears willing to wait out his struggles. Not only has Baker replaced him with Michael Taylor on days when the Nats face off against a lefty starter, but top infield prospect Trea Turner has been learning to play center as a way to get his bat into the lineup instead. And with the non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching, there’s talk that Washington could be in the mix to add another outfielder.

All those factors have added up to a season of frustration for a player who’s rarely faced this kind of adversity.

“[This is my] first time I've gone through this struggle in my professional career,” he said, “I'll be on my knees, keep praying [it gets better]. Hopefully one of these games will get me going and help this team get some more W's.”

The January trade to acquire Revere from the Toronto Blue Jays for struggling reliever Drew Storen was widely viewed as a steal for GM Mike Rizzo. The move doesn't look as good six months later, but there's still enough time left in the season for a rebound. 

“Dusty's going to give me plenty of at-bats and I'm going to do everything I can to bust my tail, no matter what," Revere said. "This team, they have my back.”

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Baker acknowledges Nats need to come through in clutch situations

Baker acknowledges Nats need to come through in clutch situations

Coming through in two-out situations isn’t supposed to be an easy task, but the Nationals are making it look especially difficult of late.

The most recent example of those struggles came in Friday night’s 5-3 loss to the Padres, in which the Nats’ lineup couldn’t get the big knock against 23-year-old right hander Luis Perdomo, a rookie starter who came into the game sporting a 7.36 ERA.

“That’s been our nemesis,” manager Dusty Baker said. “People ask me, you know, what do we need? We need some timely, two-out base hits. Not home runs.”

Indeed, when the Nats have big nights offensively, it’s usually because they powered their way to get there. They entered Friday tied for first in the National League with 132 homers through 96 games. And even against the Padres, two of Washington's three runs on the night came via solo shots from Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy.

So the issue hasn’t been overall scoring, per se. The issue has been scoring in clutch situations without having to rely on the long ball. Against the Perdomo and the Padres, the Nats went 1-for-5 with two outs and runners in scoring position, including an 0-for-4 stretch after the first inning. That won’t help their season average in that category (.221), which ranked 21st in the majors prior to the game.

So it’s no mystery to Baker about what has to be fixed.

“At this stage of the game, almost two-thirds of the season gone, we gotta make some changes,” the skipper said of the Nats’ two-out approach. “We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, and it’s getting frustrating on the guys and frustrating on fans and frustrating to us, too.”

When asked about the Nats' recent woes, Bryce Harper chalked it up to the typical up-and-down nature of the long season. 

"I don't think we need to change much at all,” said Harper, who’s 6-for-20 in those situations on the year. "I think we're a great team. I think we're swinging the bats well.

“Sometimes you line out and get out. Sometimes you hit right into shifts. Sometimes you strikeout, sometimes you walk. It's part of the game.”

Perhaps it is just part of the game. But it is also hard to ignore that the Nats have gone 6-for-41 with runners in scoring position over their last five games, four of them losses. 

But Baker, ever the optimist, believes it won't take long before his team turns it around. 

“I just urge everybody, don’t panic," he said. "Just let us play and we’ll come out of this.”

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Big inning dooms Roark as Nats fall to Padres

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USA TODAY Sports

Big inning dooms Roark as Nats fall to Padres

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 loss the San Diego Padres on Friday night at Nationals Park: 

How it happened: Perhaps it’s too early to call it a trend, but it sure seems like Nats have had a tough time with west coast teams this season. And after Friday’s loss to the Padres, Washington fell to 3-8 against the NL West.

They can thank Matt Kemp for that.

The Padres’ veteran right fielder got the best of Tanner Roark on this night, tagging him for two home runs — a solo shot in the first inning and a three-run tater in the fifth — which accounted for four of the five runs the Nats’ starter yielded. 

On the flip side, Washington couldn’t solve San Diego rookie Luis Perdomo, who shut down the home team over seven frames after allowing two quick runs in the first. 

The Nats threatened after Perdomo exited, with Daniel Murphy hitting his 19th home run of the season to cut the deficit to 5-3 in the eighth. But they couldn't complete the rally, clinching their fourth loss in the last five games. 

What it means: The Nats fall to 57-40, and pending the result of the Mets-Marlins game, could fall to see their division lead shrink to 3 1/2 games. 

Offense struggles versus Padres’ rookie: To this point in the season, there hasn’t been much about Padres 23-year-old rookie Luis Perdomo that screams “ace”. But after the first inning, the Nats made him look like one as they couldn’t muster much against a guy who came into the game sporting a 7.36 ERA. As a whole, the offense mustered three runs, with two of them coming on home runs. The Nats might be one of the best power-hitting teams in the game, but these are the type of games they need to win when the ball isn't leaving the yard. 

Kemp solves Roark: It’s surprising when the Nats’ 29-year-old right hander isn’t anything but steady, but it appeared the Padres had his number on this night — well, at least Kemp did. Were it not for the two big swings on the night, Roark probably would have pitched deeper into the game. Instead, he could only get through five innings, marking his shortest outing since June 16.  

Felipe Rivero: After a rough early part of June, Rivero has quietly rebounded. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10 appearances, striking out 15 over 17 1/3 innings. With so much talk about how the Nats may want to upgrade their bullpen at the trade deadline, it’s easy to forget that the group they have isn’t half bad.

Up next: Washington will look to bounce back Saturday night as it sends Max Scherzer (10-6, 2.94 ERA) to the hill to oppose ex-Nat Edwin Jackson (1-1, 4.76 ERA).