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.

State of the Nats: Turner close? Plus, Scherzer's Mount Rushmore

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State of the Nats: Turner close? Plus, Scherzer's Mount Rushmore

Team Record: 30-21

Top storylines

When will we see Trea Turner? - The Nationals are in first place in the NL East and could make a significant addition to their roster very soon. 

Waiting in Triple-A is shortstop Trea Turner, who is batting .319 through 47 games with Syracuse and is ranked the ninth-best prospect in baseball by MLB.com. He has yet to play with the Nationals this season in part due to his MLB service time clock, but as of this week, that is no longer a concern.

By keeping Turner in the minors until now, the Nationals preserved an extra year of Turner's rookie contract. The cutoff is 172 days on a 25-man roster, what is considered a full year of service time. Turner logged 45 days last year and there are 126 days remaining in the 2016 regular season. Add those two numbers up and you get 171, one day short of the full-year allotment.

Exactly when the Nats will pull the trigger to bring up Turner and whom will be affected is not clear. The obvious first place to look is at shortstop where Danny Espinosa is batting just .201/.299/.314. With his high average and impressive speed (16-for-16 in SB at Triple-A), Turner may represent an upgrade offensively, even if he takes time to adjust to the big league level. But what about defense? Espinosa remains a plus-defender at shortstop, while Turner has committed eight errors already in 44 games at Syracuse. That pace would give him 29 over a 162-game season, which is a lot.

When Turner comes up, the Nats will have to remove somebody from their bench. Stephen Drew is currently their backup infielder and is on a one-year, $3 million deal. Interestingly enough, Drew has a series of performance bonuses in his contract based on games played. If he reaches 80 games this season, for instance, he earns another $150,000. If he gets to 90 games it's another $200,000 and another $200,000 for 100. For 110 games he would get $250,000. Drew has only appeared in 27 games this season, so the extra money isn't a pressing concern for the Nats, but it is something to consider.

As far as his performance on the field goes, Drew's .157 batting average isn't doing him any favors, but he does bring value defensively with the ability to play three positions. Aside from the one time he lost a ball in the sun, he's been fairly solid at second base, third base and at shortstop.

Scherzer's Mount Rushmore - This week I spoke with Max Scherzer for a separate story, but also threw in some random questions towards the end of our conversation, including one on his favorite pitchers of all-time. Scherzer knew immediately who to highlight, as he had clearly thought of this before.

"My four favorites growing up, my Mount Rushmore, it was [Greg] Maddux, [John] Smoltz, Pedro [Martinez] and Randy Johnson. Those four, those were my guys. I loved the way Pedro went after and attacked hitters. I loved the way he threw the ball just with everything. Those were the guys I always tuned in to and made sure I always tried to find if I were ever going to a baseball game and knew they were going to throw," he said. 

"You can appreciate everything that those guys did, what made them successful and how they went after hitters and how they were all able to do it for such a long time. I think that's the thing. Anybody can have a great year, but when you start talking about longevity of a career, eight to 10 years of pitching at an elite level, that's an unbelievable feat."

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Ryan Zimmerman 5/28 vs. Cardinals - 4-for-4, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 2 R

Pitching line of the week: Joe Ross 5/26 vs. Cardinals - 7.0 IP, ER, 6 H, 4 SO, BB, 110 pitches (74 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

"I guess the baseball gods don't want me to wear the batting gloves right now. 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."

- Bryce Harper on cutting up his batting gloves after hitting a homer in Saturday night's loss

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

Road Ahead

Mon. - 7:05 p.m. at Philadelphia Phillies (Roark vs. Hellickson)
Tue. - 7:05 p.m. at Philadelphia Phillies (Ross vs. Nola)
Wed. - 7:05 p.m. at Philadelphia Phillies (Scherzer vs. Morgan)
Thu. - OFF
Fri. - 7:10 p.m. at Cincinnati Reds (Strasburg vs. Straily)
Sat. - 4:10 p.m. at Cincinnati Reds (Roark vs. Moscot)
Sun. - 1:10 p.m. at Cincinnati Reds (Ross vs. Latos)

How Wilson Ramos' daughter helped key his 4-RBI day in Nats' win

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How Wilson Ramos' daughter helped key his 4-RBI day in Nats' win

Of all the great uses for iPads, from business to education to watching movies on flights, many parents would argue there is no better utility for the Apple product than keeping children entertained.

Kids absolutely love them. The lights, the sounds, the games, the pictures. It's sensory overload and they'll entertain - and often keep quiet - a child for up to hours at a time.

For Wilson Ramos this weekend, it went much further than that. His young daughter - who turns two later this year - was watching cartoons on his iPad on Saturday night when she stumbled across a highlight video of him hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs on May 6 at Wrigley Field. 

"For some reason, she was pointing it out and saying, ‘Daddy, daddy!’ Kinda like saying this is you," Ramos said through an interpreter after Sunday's 10-2 win over the Cardinals.

"For whatever reason, today I took that same approach like I did back then, nice and relaxed. And it worked out."

Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu may have some competition, because Ramos' daughter was on to something, whether intentionally or not. 

The Nats catcher reached base four times on Sunday with three hits - including a two-run homer - and a walk. It was the fifth time in 40 games this season that he's been on base four times.

Ramos' homer came in the eighth inning off Cardinals reliever Tyler Lyons. It was Ramos' sixth home run of the season and his fourth in the month of May. Ramos is now batting .336 this season to lead all MLB catchers. That number ranks ninth in all of baseball and second on the Nationals behind only Daniel Murphy.

Ramos' other big hit Sunday was a two-RBI single in the fourth inning against Cardinals starter Michael Wacha. He took a 94 mile per hour fastball the other way to right field to score Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and put the Nationals up 3-1 at the time.

It was yet another game this season where Ramos has helped lead the way on offense. The 28-year-old backstop has - perhaps quietly - been one of the key cogs for the Nationals so far this season.

Some of it has to do with health, as well as the LASIK surgery he had during spring training. But don't forget his daughter.

"For some reason she’s learned how to play with it and look up certain files," Ramos said. "I’m going to try to put the same things on, little cartoons for her, and hopefully she takes it away and swipes to my at-bats and hopefully they’re good ones."

Stats you need to know in advance of Nationals' road trip

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Stats you need to know in advance of Nationals' road trip

BY RICH GOLDBERG (@GoldyStats)

After dismantling the Cardinals 10-2 in the series finale on Sunday, the Nationals hit the road for a nine-game road trip that will see them take on their N.L. East rival Philadelphia Phillies, the N.L. Central cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds and the suddenly ice-cold Chicago White Sox.

CSN researcher Rich Goldberg details the five stats you need to know before the Nats start June off on the road.

RELATED: CONSISTENCY KEY TO STRASBURG'S HISTORIC START

1. Bryce Harper has a 6-game home run streak at Philadelphia.

The only other visiting player to do that in Philadelphia? Hall of Famer Ernie Banks back in 1955.

 

2. Wilson Ramos is hitting .336 and leads all MLB catchers.

The previous 5 seasons, Ramos batted .270, .246, .250, .265 and .252 through the end of May.

 

3. Daniel Murphy has a career .406 batting average (26 for 64) at Great American Ballpark.

That is Murphy’s highest BA at any ballpark with a minimum of 4 games played.

 

4. Tanner Roark is 1-4 with a 8.27 career ERA in 5 road games (4 starts) at Philadelphia.

Roark has the fifth worst ERA by a visiting player at Citizens Bank Park, with a minimum of 4 starts. Roark pitches Monday against the Phillies.

 

5. Stephen Strasburg is the first pitcher in Nationals/Expos history to begin a season 9-0 and he’s 9 strikeouts away from his 1000th career K.

Strasburg is scheduled to start Saturday against the Reds.