A few years ago, Major League Baseball stopped scheduling games for the Thursday after the All-Star Break. The league wanted to give their players one more day of rest. While this decision leaves fans with no live games to watch that night from any of the four major sports, it has been well-received by players, who are largely deprived of respite during the season.
The Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates started their series on Friday, but played four games' worth of innings in just three. They have an 18-inning marathon Sunday to thank for that. Pittsburgh came away with the victory in that mega-extra-inning affair, but it was the Nationals' pitching staff that dominated the weekend.
Stephen Strasburg declined to pitch in the All-Star Game so he could start the team's first game after the break, and it paid off. He allowed just one run on three hits in eight innings of work, striking out six. The game was even at 1-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, but that's when Washington erupted for four runs. Strasburg himself gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead with a sacrifice fly, and Michael Taylor's two-run homer later in the frame put the contest out of reach.
Saturday's story was all too similar, as Tanner Roark tossed an eight-inning gem of his own. Roark shut out the Pirates and allowed just five hits, somehow one-upping Strasburg in both categories. Washington's offense, meanwhile, thumped Gerrit Cole for six runs in just four full innings; Anthony Rendon's solo homer and Stephen Drew's 3-for-4 night led the attack. It was an easy 6-0 win for the Nationals, who improved to 20 games over .500 after never being more than 10 games over last season.
The Pirates appeared to have Sunday's contest in the bag entering the ninth. Starling Marte's sixth-inning RBI double off Max Scherzer was all they needed to give lockdown closer Mark Melancon a 1-0 lead to protect. But Daniel Murphy, the free-agent signee turned hitter extraordinaire, stepped in as a pinch hitter with two outs and sent a low fastball into the right-field bleachers, tying the game in electrifying fashion.
Melancon's second blown save in 29 tries this season sent the game to extra innings, where it stayed for several hours. Both teams exhausted their bullpens, but every pitcher that entered kept the game tied. Washington's Oliver Perez finally caved in the 18th, serving up a two-out homer to Marte that would not be countered.
Salvaging the final game of the series has to be a big deal for the Pirates, who are in the thick of the NL Wild Card race (which gains relevance now that the second half is underway) but still well back of the Cubs in the division. Getting swept to start the second half is never ideal. The Nationals, meanwhile, hold a six-game lead over the Marlins and Mets, and both of those teams have their issues with health and/or depth.
Stephen Strasburg is now 13-0, and although fans have come to realize that a pitcher's record is not entirely indicative of their performance, this is still historic. He's just the fifth pitcher to start a season 13-0 since the Cy Young Award was invented in 1956. The last three to do so (Scherzer in 2013, Roger Clemens in 1986 and Ron Guidry in 1978) won the award. The NL is crowded with A-list pitchers having phenomenal seasons (Kershaw, Bumgarner, Arrieta, Cueto, and more), but Strasburg is putting together a year that cannot be ignored.
Roark, meanwhile, has more scoreless starts of at least seven innings than any of them. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Roark's six such outings edge Arrieta's five for the most in baseball. This is the same Roark that spent last season in long relief. His ERA is down to 2.82, tenth in the NL.
Andrew McCutchen went 0-for-8 Sunday, the first player to do so this season. He struck out in his first two at-bats, then put six balls in play that couldn't get him on. His average dipped from .250 to .244 in one afternoon, which is staggering for this point of the season. All season long, fans have been waiting for McCutchen to heat up, but it still hasn't happened. Fortunately, fellow outfielders Marte and Gregory Polanco are picking up the slack on offense, and all three are still plus defenders.
Daniel Murphy's homer Sunday was his only at-bat of the series, as hamstring soreness that surfaced after the All-Star Game sidelined him all weekend. It doesn't appear to be a serious injury in the long run, but any team will miss a .350 average when it's not in the lineup. Trea Turner filled in at second base, while Drew and Clint Robinson split time at first (the team is also missing Ryan Zimmerman at the moment). None of those guys can produce at anywhere near Murphy's level, though, and Sunday was a stern reminder.
Despite all the wild on-field action over 36 innings, the star of the series was a young Pirates fan that the camera crew found Sunday. This is what long baseball games do to people.