Jul 7, 2014, 10:48 PM EDT
GAME IN A NUTSHELL: If the opener of this 4-game Battle of the Beltways is a sign of things to come, get ready for an entertaining, tense week of baseball between two very good teams in front of rabid fans supporting both clubs. A crowd of 35,126 decked out both in red and orange was treated to a highly compelling ballgame tonight, with Stephen Strasburg and Chris Tillman each dealing gems before this one went much deeper into the night … and then turned ugly from the Nationals’ perspective.
Each right-hander made one mistake. Strasburg served up a 2-run homer to Nelson Cruz in the top of the fourth. Tillman served up a 2-run homer to Anthony Rendon in the bottom of the sixth. Each departed after the seventh, leaving this game in the hands of the bullpens.
Tyler Clippard pitched around Ryan Zimmerman’s first errant throw since returning to third base to escape an eighth-inning jam. Rafael Soriano then tossed a scoreless top of the ninth to set the stage for his teammates to deliver the game-winner. They put themselves in position to do it, with Zimmerman smoking a 1-out double to right-center and forcing Buck Showalter to intentionally walk Bryce Harper and pitch to Ian Desmond. Sidewinder Darren O’Day, though, wriggled his way out of the jam, striking out both Desmond and Wilson Ramos and sending this game to extra innings.
For reasons unexplainable, the Nationals have struggled all season in extras, going 2-8 with a team batting average well below the Mendoza line. That has put immense pressure on the bullpen to be perfect, and tonight it wasn’t. Craig Stammen was torched in the top of the 11th, serving up back-to-back homers to Chris Davis and J.J Hardy and giving up four total runs before getting yanked in favor of Aaron Barrett … who immediately served up a 2-run homer himself. The Nats couldn’t produce a last-ditch comeback, so they dropped the opener of what promises to be a very competitive and compelling Battle of the Beltways series.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: For all the thunder in the heart of the lineup, the guys who have made the Nationals go all season have been the two guys at the top: Denard Span and Rendon. And they teamed up yet again tonight, producing the game-tying rally in the bottom of the sixth. Span got it started by battling through a tough at-bat against Tillman, fouling off a couple of 2-strike pitches before lacing a single up the middle. Rendon didn’t need to battle. He went right after Tillman’s first pitch and drove it on a line to right-center, clearing the fence for his 13th homer of the year.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: Against one of the toughest lineups he’ll face all season, Strasburg turned in a very nice start. Manny Machado went 3-for-3 against him. Everybody else went 1-for-22. Now, that one was a pretty big one (Cruz’s homer). But Strasburg did a nice job battling back after the fourth-inning homer, striking out the next four batters he faced. And after his teammates produced the game-tying runs in the bottom of the sixth, Strasburg took the mound for the top of the seventh and delivered the kind of shutdown inning you expect from a frontline starter. He wound up with no decision, but this was no mundane start for the right-hander. This was among his better performances of the year.
KEY STAT: Even after striking out in the ninth inning tonight, Ian Desmond is 11-for-18 in his career when the batter in front of him is intentionally walked.
UP NEXT: The D.C. segment of the series concludes at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday when Doug Fister looks to improve to 8-2 against Baltimore right-hander Bud Norris, who is making his return from a groin strain.
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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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