The dog days in Washington may just be beginning for the two best-known Nationals. The grind is showing for rookie Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, who is working through his first full big-league season. And historically August is baseball's longest month.
The 19-year-old Harper hit .222 in July, including a .183 average in his first 21 games after the All-Star break. He went hitless against Cole Hamels in the long anticipated rematch after Hamels' drilled him because he doesn't like brash rookies, and entered the weekend in a 4-for-32 slump. He has been striking out more than normal despite a power outage (one home run since June 28).
Harper battled the stomach flu last weekend, which caused him to be scratched from one game in Milwaukee, but admits his problems are mostly in his head.
Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com points out that Harper had a .592 OPS from June 13 through last Tuesday, which ranked 148th of 151 qualifying big-leaguers.
"I'm trying to find some mellowness in the plate and in the box," Harper said. "Just trying to work at it every day. Try to take something good from every at-bat and take something good from every game."
While Harper was selected to the NL All-Star team, he's showing signs that he is overmatched, as Mike Trout was when the Angels brought him to the big leagues at 19.
"I don't think I'm trying to do too much at all," he said. "I'm trying to keep my strikeouts down and my walks up. That's the biggest thing."
Strasburg lasted only four innings and 65 pitches against the Phillies on Tuesday, taking a loss that dropped him to 11-5. His ERA jumped from 2.76 to 3.12.
While Strasburg still would qualify to be Davey Johnson's No. 1 or 2 starter if the playoffs began this week, he has been pretty ordinary since late June -- 2-4 with a 4.58 in his last seven starts. Some think he's experiencing the inconsistency that often follows Tommy John (elbow) surgery but he thinks it's just baseball's normal cycle of peaks and valleys.
"I'm not blaming it on having Tommy John," Strasburg said. "It happens to everybody. I'm just going to forget about it and make the adjustments. It has nothing to do with coming off Tommy John. That's more than two years now."
It's yet to be seen if the Nationals will go to Strasburg in October. He figures to get only six or seven more starts before reaching the vague innings limit that general manager Mike Rizzo has set for him.
"It's just a long grind, and you can't be totally dominant every time you go out there," Johnson said. "He expects it of himself, and when he makes a bad pitch and a guy hits it out of the ballpark, it makes him try harder. It's part of learning."
For Strasburg and Harper, the good news is their growing pains haven't taken a toll on their team. The Nationals have been baseball's most consistent team: 14-8 in April, 15-13 in May, 15-11 in June and 17-9 in July.
They explored deals for a starter, catcher or middle infielder before the trade deadline but Rizzo waited until Friday to acquire Kurt Suzuki from the A's in a waiver deal. The Nats were the only big-league team that didn't make a trade in July.