SAN FRANCISCO -- After playing 35 games over the last 34 days, including a just-completed 10-game road trip, the Nationals can finally enjoy a day off Thursday. Not that spending time away from Nationals Park has been much of a problem for them.
Washington can rest a little more easily after Stephen Strasburg led the club to a 6-4 victory over the Giants at AT&T Park on Wednesday, taking yet another road series victory into an off-day and improving the club's road record to 41-23, the best in the Majors. In fact, no team has even posted that many wins at home, and only the Reds have a better winning percentage at home (.649) than the Nats do on the road (.641).
With the win, the Nats finished the road trip with an 8-2 record and avoided losing their first road series of the year. And by the time they take the field again, they'll have likely improved, with shortstop Ian Desmond due to make his return from the disabled list Friday.
The Nationals will come home with at least a 4 1/2-game lead in the National League East, pending Atlanta's result later Wednesday night.
"Good teams play just as well on the road as they do at home. We're a good team," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We look at every game as an important game. That's the only way to do it."
The duel between Strasburg and Tim Lincecum fizzled fairly quickly, as Washington forced the Giants right-hander to leave after four innings, but Strasburg didn't disappoint. The Nationals' ace picked up his 14th win and struck out seven over six innings, upping his increasingly scrutinized innings total on the season to 139 1/3 on 100 pitches.
He only stumbled once, in the second inning, which he began with walks to Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Brandon Belt singled to load the bases, and Brandon Crawford drove in Posey and Pence with a single to right field. That erased the two-run lead Jayson Werth gave the Nationals in the first, when he dropped a two-out single into left field to score Steve Lombardozzi and Adam LaRoche.
A few factors contributed to Strasburg's shaky control early on in that inning. Johnson pointed out that the right-hander has gone through a few at-bats like that before, and he just needed to find his rhythm again. There was also Strasburg's stiff back, which gave him some trouble in his last start. He stopped overthrowing and started hitting his spots more once he got it loose -- or, as Johnson said, once he got in a jam and couldn't worry about it anymore.
"Once I told myself to just trust [my back] and just let it happen, all my pitches started to come back, and I started having a much better feel," Strasburg said. "It's tough, because obviously you have some long innings sitting down there and everything. It's a little chilly. It took a little while to get going, but once I got loose, it was good."
The Nationals' lineup, meanwhile, continued to roll. Danny Espinosa broke the 2-2 tie in the third inning with his 13th homer of the season, a two-run shot he launched to right-center field, the deepest part of AT&T Park, on a 2-2 fastball from Lincecum.
"They put together good at-bats when they needed to. That blow by Espinosa in the third was crushing," Lincecum said. "Just battling through those four innings, I wasn't throwing the quality strikes when I needed to. I wasn't throwing the way I thought I should have."
Espinosa and Lombardozzi, both streaking at the plate but likely making their last start manning the middle-infield positions together, combined to go 6-for-9 with two doubles, a homer, two RBIs and two runs scored Wednesday.
"They've been really outstanding. I can't say enough," Johnson said of his middle-infield duo. "They're professional. They play great defense, and their offense has been great. And it's even picked up with Desi out."
Espinosa has reached base safely in his last 12 games, batting .380 with four homers and 11 RBIs in that stretch. He'll move back to second base when Desmond returns, and he's convinced a modified approach at the plate will help him continue to contribute offensively.
"I've been feeling good. I feel comfortable up there," he said. "I feel like I have a lot of confidence going into every at-bat. It's just a comfort level right now, just feeling like I can hit a good pitch. It's a good feeling."
Lombardozzi, who went 7-for-15 this series, found his comfort zone in an everyday role where he can get consistent at-bats, and he's proven it by hitting .471 with eight runs over his last eight games. That will change when Desmond comes back, however. He will return to his super-utility role, filling in wherever he's needed and occasionally leading off when Johnson doesn't want Werth atop the order.
"I want to keep continuing to help this team win. [When I play is] out of my hands," Lombardozzi said. "I can't control that. I know Davey will use all 25 guys to get us to the playoffs."
Washington will head back to Nationals Park having gone 24-11 during the 35-games-in-34-days stretch, setting themselves up well for the rest of the season, even if it was exhausting.
"Feels like we've been on the road for months," Johnson said.
Not that it's been a bad thing for the Nationals.