When Stephen Strasburg took the mound for the second time last night, after a scoreless 20-pitch top of the first, he had a 1-0 lead to work with, courtesy of the Washington Nationals' 1-2 combination of Denard Span and Anthony Rendon.
Span doubled to right-center off Atlanta Braves' lefty Alex Wood, improving to 15 for 46 (.326/.380/.522) with his third double, two HRs and four walks in his first at bats through 50 games this season atop the order as the Nats' leadoff man and Anthony Rendon went the other way with an 0-1 fastball outside, singling to right to bring Span around and give the Nationals an early lead. 1-0.
It was the first of four hits for Rendon in four at bats as he improved to .277/.368/.354 on the year in 17 games and 76 PAs since he returned from the MCL sprain and oblique injury that kept him out of the lineup until June 4th.
"It's getting there," Nationals' manager Matt Williams said when asked about Rendon after Washington's 3-1 win over the Braves and their fourth straight win overall.
"For Anthony, if he's hitting the ball on the line the other way you know his swing is right. In recent days he's hit some ground balls to short. If he's doing that then you know he's not quite right on his timing.
"But tonight, the first one down the line, just trying to get Denard over and hit a ball down the line to drive in a run. And line drives to the middle of the diamond [are] key and he did that tonight for us."
Finally having his 1-2 punch atop the order, Williams said, makes all the difference for the Nats' offense.
"They're both on-base guys for us," he explained. "They both have the ability to drive the baseballs as well, they can hit doubles and triples, but to move a baseball like Anthony did tonight, Denard leads off with a double and [Rendon] just moves the baseball the other way. It just sets up innings for us, and they both have a good sense of the strike zone when they're standing at the plate, so they walk a lot which sets up our 3-4-5 guys. That was the measure of our success offensively last year. So we hope that that's going to continue to be the measure of our success. Those two guys at the top of our lineup are important for us."
Also important, the continued development of left fielder Michael Taylor, who scored the second run of the game after singling to start the third, taking second on an error and then stealing third base in the next at bat to put himself 90ft from home with no one out. Span came through with the run-scoring single that time to make it 2-0 after three.
In the fourth, Tyler Moore took a two-out walk from Wood with Danny Espinosa on first, putting a runner in scoring position for Taylor, who singled to left to make it 3-0.
With the 1-2 hitters humming and getting on base, Williams said, it's important to have Taylor getting on in the eight spot as well because it provides even more opportunities.
"It's important," he said. "It's important for us to have speed in that position.
"We saw that tonight, with Stras at the plate, [Taylor is] able to steal third base. Then we can give our pitcher a whack at it, have three chances to get him in as opposed to giving up an out there. So we have that option with the speed in the eight hole. He's got power. We've seen that. And he's finding his way as a big leaguer. So, what's he at .250-ish?"
Taylor's at .249 actually, after a 2 for 4 night against the Braves.
"He's there," Williams said. "He's doing fine and he's going to play a lot. He provides us great defense in the outfield.
"Can move to center if Denard needs a day or if he's barking a little bit, he provides great defense in center field for us too."
"We're getting pretty good production out of the bottom part," Williams added this morning in an appearance on the MLB Network Radio show "First Pitch".
"Michael Taylor," he said, "both guys that are filling in for [Ryan Zimmerman] now, Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore are swinging the bat pretty well and they're driving runs in for us. That collective attack is what we want.
"Balls are going to leave the ballpark sometimes and those are great, but if we can consistently have that attack every day and do things right then we've got a chance, especially when our guys are pitching like they're pitching."
Strasburg tossed five scoreless last night, allowing just five hits. After the outing, his first since he went on the DL with neck tightness on May 30th, he talked about the importance of getting that early run support.
"It's always great getting a lead early and getting a chance to settle in," Strasburg said. "I thought everybody played great tonight. I thought [Wilson Ramos] called a great game and just wanted to go out there and help the team win."