On a night in which the thermometer read 77 degrees at a 7:07 p.m. first pitch with number 37 on the mound for the Nationals, perhaps it seemed inevitable that Washington was on its way to its 77th victory, opening up a season-high seven-game lead over the division-rival Braves. Stephen Strasburg reduced a potent Braves lineup to a collection of swinging and looking strikes, including a breaking ball so sharp it sent Martin Prado, a good breaking-ball hitter, lurching backwards as it spun back across the plate.
But Tuesday night’s affair was about more than just Strasburg. Just as he had done the night before, Ian Desmond blasted a home run over the visitor’s bullpen in left field, to nearly the exact same spot. Later, Jesus Flores – who replaced Kurt Suzuki as the starter specifically due to his history of success against Braves starter Paul Maholm – drove a game-defining, three-run shot into the planters just over the left field wall. It was Flores’ first home run since June 29 at Turner Field in Atlanta in a game the Nats would win 5-4, and his first at Nationals Park since June 2, when he broke a scoreless tie with a blast off Brandon Beachy and, yes, the Braves. The catcher has hit just four home runs this season, but the last three have all come against Washington’s closest division rival and have all been a crucial factor in the outcome.
Amazingly, with Desmond and Flores both going deep in their victory Tuesday night, the Nationals have now won 20 straight games in which they have homered. That little nugget reminded us of a conversation we had with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons back in Spring Training. When we spoke with Gammons in the press box in Viera, we asked him of what team in recent memory these 2012 Nats reminded him. We expected an answer like the 2008 Rays or the 2010 Giants, clubs led by dominant starting pitching that could grind out a tight game every night. His answer surprised us.
“I would say Texas,” he said. Those Texas Rangers? The ones who could sneak up and lay a six-run inning on you at any time? The ones who had been to the past two World Series?
“Their pitching is very, very good,” he continued. “It’s young and it’s inexperienced. But they’ve got a lot of guys who can hit the ball eight miles, just like the Nationals do.”
Now, here in late August, with the Nationals lineup at last as healthy as it has been all year long, we finally understand. Washington now leads the National League in home run differential, having blasted 135 while surrendering just 95 (+39). That differential is 10 better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who own the league’s best overall offense. Considering the Nationals rash of injuries and games missed by middle-of-the-lineup bats this year, it’s an even more impressive statistic.
With those power bats back in the lineup, Gammons’ analysis makes a lot more sense. Of course, we’ll still take some credit for our own comparisons. After all, the last team to win 20 straight games in which they homered? The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.