Published April 14, 2016
It was Bryce Harper's historical grand slam that provided the oomph in the Washington Nationals' latest win.
Make no mistake, it's the pitching that has them smashing team records.
After matching the franchise's fastest start through eight games, the Nationals hope to become the best through nine when they visit another hot pitching club in the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night.
Harper became the eighth-youngest player to reach 100 home runs with a third-inning grand slam in Thursday's 6-2 victory over Atlanta. The reigning NL MVP reached the mark at 23 years and 181 days old. Hall of Famer Mel Ott was more than a full year younger when he became the youngest to do it.
''In every sport, guys (that) are considered the great ones, Michael Jordan, (Wayne) Gretzky, Jim Brown, Joe Montana, they have a flair for the dramatic,'' manager Dusty Baker said. ''And I told him when he hit that home run, `Man, you've got a flair for the dramatic.'''
Harper's third homer of the season helped the Nationals (7-1) match the 1974 Montreal Expos for the franchise's best eight-game start. No team in club history has opened 8-1 since the Expos entered the league in 1969.
But while a lineup that trudged through most of a disappointing 2015 campaign has done just enough, it was Stephen Strasburg who sustained an impressive trend on the mound. The right-hander held the Braves to two runs and four hits over 7 2-3 innings.
Washington surrendered three runs over the final three games of its four-game sweep, dropping its MLB-leading ERA to 2.22. The starters have surrendered two home runs while holding opponents to a .225 batting average.
Joe Ross hopes to keep the ball rolling while building on a quality first start in Sunday's 4-2 win over Miami. The right-hander gave up one run and five hits through seven innings.
The Nationals have won six of seven in Philadelphia and will be facing a Phillies team that has won five of six to offset four straight losses to open the season. Three straight victories to close a four-game set against San Diego pushed them to .500 for the first time since they were 3-3 in 2015.
The Phillies opened a 10-game homestand by holding the Padres to one run and 13 hits over the final three, with Vince Velasquez striking out 16 and pitching a three-hitter in Thursday's 3-0 win.
If Friday starter Jeremy Hellickson (1-0, 1.54 ERA) throws similar to his first two outings, that trend has a strong chance to continue.
The right-hander allowed one unearned run and three hits in six innings in a 6-2 loss at Cincinnati on April 4 before holding the New York Mets to two runs and three hits over 5 2-3 of Sunday's 5-2 victory.
Hellickson walked one while striking out 11 between his first two starts, wiping away the concern of his 4.62 ERA in 27 starts with Arizona in 2015.
"He was a left-handed pitcher before this year," manager Pete Mackanin joked to MLB's official website. "We turned him into a righty. We just saw something."
Hellickson wasn't as tongue-in-cheek about his early success.
"I'm just keeping the ball down and feeling a lot better," he said. "That has a lot to do with it."
The Phillies will be without rookie reliever Daniel Stumpf for 80 games after he was suspended by MLB on Thursday for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance. He allowed three runs over two-thirds of an inning in his first three major league appearances.