Apr 20, 2014, 4:58 PM EDT
GAME IN A NUTSHELL: Twenty-four hours after a drama-filled loss that was highlighted by Matt Williams’ decision to bench Bryce Harper for failing to run out a routine grounder, the Nationals were back on the field with renewed purpose in their series finale against the Cardinals. Harper was back in the lineup himself and he immediately got a chance to bust down the line on a first-inning groundball.
Stephen Strasburg, on the heels of a poor performance in Miami, was all business. The right-hander struck out nine over six dominant innings, though he departed in line for the loss after allowing two runs, with the Nationals unable to make a dent into Cardinals starter Shelby Miller.
The rally finally came in the bottom of the seventh, though, against hard-throwing reliever Carlos Martinez. Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa all singled in succession, bringing home the tying run and setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
After some effective relief from Jerry Blevins and Rafael Soriano, the Nationals produced the game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth, with Denard Span battling through a tough at-bat with the bases loaded and five infielders deployed by the Cardinals to loft a soft flyball to left field, deep enough to score Espinosa and give the Nationals a four-game series split.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: The Nationals gave themselves chances all afternoon, but aside from their seventh-inning rally couldn’t deliver in big spots. That led to an astounding 15 runners stranded on base through the game’s first eight innings. But then it finally came together when it mattered most in the bottom of the ninth. Espinosa got things started with a shot that third baseman Matt Carpenter couldn’t handle. Jose Lobaton followed with a single to right, moving Espinosa all the way to third base. After Nate McLouth drew a walk, the Cardinals employed a 5-man infield with the bases loaded. But Span battled through a tough at-bat with Seth Maness before lofting a fly ball deep enough to left field to bring Espinosa home with the game-winner.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: Strasburg was downright dominant for the vast majority of his start. Displaying better fastball command than he had in previous outings this season, he also mixed in a flurry of devastating changeups and several effective curveballs, staying away from his newly developed slider for the most part. That resulted in nine strikeouts in only six innings. This wasn’t, however, a perfect outing by the right-hander. He slipped up a couple of times and paid the price for it. Matt Adams led off the second with a double, and Yadier Molina immediately followed with a single, leading to the Cardinals’ first run. Then in the fifth, Strasburg walked No. 8 hitter Peter Bourjos with two outs and immediately served up an RBI double to opposing pitcher Shelby Miller. Proof that no matter how good your stuff is on a given day, you can’t ease off the gas pedal ever.
KEY STAT: Espinosa is now hitting .324 this season from the left side of his plate. Prior to this year, he hit .219 left-handed for his career.
UP NEXT: The Nationals get their first taste of interleague play this season, and we all get a marquee matchup of stud young outfielders. It’s Harper and the Nats vs. Mike Trout and the Angels for the next three nights, starting with Monday’s 7:05 p.m. series opener. Tanner Roark is on the mound, facing Los Angeles right-hander Garrett Richards.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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