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Nats bounce up off the mat

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Nats bounce up off the mat

There was a point early Saturday evening in which the Nationals' season appeared to be at a potential breaking point. Having already lost the first two games of a showdown series with the Braves -- blowing a nine-run lead in one of them -- they now put themselves in an early 2-0 hole in the nightcap of a doubleheader.

At that moment, the idea of the Nationals finding themselves in second place by Sunday evening was terrifyingly possible.

But then John Lannan pitched the game of his life to lead his team to a come-from-behind victory. And then Ryan Zimmerman led an early offensive onslaught against Atlanta right-hander Jair Jurrjens Sunday afternoon. And then Ross Detwiler slammed the door on any possibility of another meltdown with seven strong innings.

And by the end of the day, the Nationals not only had themselves a 9-2 win but a split of this key series and a 3 12-game lead once again over their chief competition in the NL East.

"To be down two games in a four-game series and come back and win the last two and kind of stay where you're at as far as the division, it's a good feeling for us," Danny Espinosa said. "It's a tough challenge right there. We don't give up, but it's tough not to almost fold."

The Nationals didn't fold, not in the least. If anything, they rose up and played two of their best all-around games of the season, capped by a laugher in Sunday's finale.

The first of Zimmerman's two homers on the day, plus RBI hits from Espinosa and a red-hot Roger Bernadina put the Nationals up 4-0 before many in the crowd of 34,917 found their seats. Zimmerman's second homer of the day, combined with another RBI hit from Espinosa, made it 6-0 in the third inning. And by the time rookie catcher Sandy Leon launched a bases-loaded double in the fifth to make it 8-0, the mood in the Nationals dugout was jovial once again.

"With as much baseball as we've played this week," Zimmerman said, "with the weather and all the things we've had to deal with, and the first two games the way they went, for us to come back and win the next two games I think shows what kind of team this is."

Staked to that early lead, Detwiler did exactly what a pitcher in his situation is supposed to do: He went right after Atlanta's lineup, not wasting any time or any pitches. The left-hander gave up seven hits over seven innings, but he issued only one walk and ultimately allowed only one earned run to cross the plate.

And by pitching with such efficiency, he was able to convince Johnson to let him take the mound for the top of the seventh and provide some more much-needed relief for an overworked bullpen.

"With the doubleheader yesterday and everything, I knew the bullpen needed a little break," Detwiler said. "I was just trying to get early outs and get as deep into the game as possible."

The 26-year-old lefty has quietly become just as valuable a piece of the sport's best rotation as All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and the dominant Jordan Zimmermann. He now sports a 3.01 ERA over 14 starts, a 2.35 ERA in five starts since he rejoined the rotation.

"He's just turned into one heck of a pitcher," Johnson said.

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Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

Even after two-plus years, Hunter Strickland couldn't forget last meeting with Bryce Harper

965 days. That's the amount of time that separated the second time Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland faced each other on an MLB diamond and the third one.

In that second matchup, which came back in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS, Harper launched a game-tying home run in the seventh inning off of Strickland. Harper also hit a blast off Strickland in Game 1 of the same series.

Well, apparently, the Giants reliever still hasn't gotten over his last time he saw the Nationals star, because on Monday, the right-hander plunked the MVP candidate with a fastball the first chance he had since their postseason encounters almost three years ago.

Ironically enough, after San Francisco beat Washington in the NLDS, Strickland told the SF Chronicle how he would have to "have a short memory" on the mound for the rest of the playoffs and keep his composure after the home runs. Judging by this video, however, it's clear that Strickland's had some issues moving on:

RELATED: MORE ON THE HARPER VS. STRICKLAND BRAWL

When you look back at that Game 4 meeting, you'll see Harper pause at home plate and watch his moonshot after sending it into the McCovey Cove, then glare at Strickland a few times as he rounds the bases. Some will call what No. 34 did a violation of baseball's unwritten rules, but it was a huge moment on a huge stage, which contributed to Harper's emotional reaction.

The fact of the matter is that plenty of pitchers have moved on from much more egregious things in much shorter time frames, but for whatever reason, Strickland just wasn't able to.

Afterward, Harper explained why he thinks the hit by pitch should've never happened.

But Ryan Zimmerman had the best quote of all when talking about the sequence:

The veteran is right on with that statement. Harper was better than Strickland back in 2014, so Strickland felt the need to tag Harper first before Harper had a chance to tag him again on Monday. Essentially, the pitcher followed the, "If you can't beat him, bean him" strategy.

965 days is a long time to get over a grudge. For Hunter Strickland, though, 965 days still wasn't enough.

MORE: 10 INSANE BALLPARK FOODS YOU CAN EAT IN 2017

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Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

Bryce Harper charges mound, throws punches after Hunter Strickland hits him with pitch

In their two previous meetings, Bryce Harper took Hunter Strickland deep. Very deep, in fact.

So in their third encounter, Strickland made sure that Harper wouldn't have the chance to do it again. 

RELATED: HERE'S THE HISTORY BETWEEN BRYCE HARPER AND HUNTER STRICKLAND

In the top of the eighth inning of Monday's Nationals-Giants game, the San Francisco reliever went after Washington's best player on the first pitch and hit him in the thigh with a 98 MPH fastball.

Harper — without hesitation — responded by charging the mound and throwing his helmet at Strickland, and the two then squared off and exchanged punches.

Here is the wild video of the whole sequence:

Harper and Strickland were, of course, ejected after initiating one of the best MLB fights in recent memory. This was the pair's first time facing each other since Harper's two home runs in the 2014 NLDS, meaning Strickland's had a long time to get over No. 34's blasts but simply couldn't do it.

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