WASHINGTON — While the Washington Nationals gear up for the postseason over these final three weeks of the regular season, the Phillies remain in full development mode.
So maybe it was a good thing for both teams that Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg was on top of his game Sunday afternoon.
Strasburg pitched the Nats to the National League East title in a 3-2 win over the Phillies (see observations). And while Strasburg was completely dominant in pitching eight shutout innings and striking out 10, the Phillies' young hitters got a chance to familiarize themselves with the type of elite pitching they'll one day have to beat if they want to ascend to the top of the division.
There's some value in that.
"You want to throw guys right into the fire and let them know what they're up against," manager Pete Mackanin said after the game.
"Strasburg had his best stuff today. It's good for those young guys to see him."
Seven of Strasburg's strikeouts came against Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams and J.P. Crawford, three of the young building blocks that have recently joined the Phillies' lineup. They will be better for the experience of seeing Strasburg's high 90s fastball, his knee-buckling breaking ball and his killer changeup.
"He was on today," Crawford said. "He mixed it up and commanded it. He's not afraid to throw his off-speed stuff 2-2 or 3-2. Props to him. He shut us down."
Strasburg is on a terrific roll. He has not allowed a run in his last four starts, running his scoreless innings streak to 34, a Montreal/Washington franchise record.
Despite Strasburg's excellence, the Phillies were in this game. In fact, the loss was their 35th by one run, tying a team record. Overall, the Phillies have 89 losses with 19 games to play.
The Phils were in this game because rookie right-hander Ben Lively continued to impress with his competitiveness, willingness to attack hitters and ability to command his fastball. He became the only Phillies pitcher not named Aaron Nola to pitch into the eighth inning this season. He finished with eight innings of three-run ball. He walked one and struck out seven.
"He pitched extremely well," Mackanin said. "That was our first complete game of the year. It was nice not to have to go to the bullpen."
Pitching against a red-hot Strasburg, Lively could afford no mistakes. He made just a couple in allowing two runs in the sixth inning and another in the bottom of the eighth inning. Trea Turner tripled and scored the Nats' first run in the sixth. He then homered in the eighth to give the Nats a 3-0 lead.
"Two bad pitches and that was the ballgame," Lively said. "The first slider I hung all day was in that last inning. I'd rather get my teeth kicked in than lose a game like that."
Lively, 25, has a 3.86 ERA in 12 starts. He has pitched at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs in nine of those starts. He does a lot of it with command, deception and competitiveness as he does not possess a fastball that lights up radar guns. He has put himself in line to bid for a starting spot next spring.
"I hope so," he said. "I've been pitching my ass off. I always pitch my ass off. That's how I always am and nothing is going to change."
Lively has a fan in Mackanin.
"There's always the discussion about what's more important, velocity, deception, movement, location," Mackanin said. "A lot of people will say velocity but that's not the case for me. Location, movement and deception are just as important if not more important, and if you locate with lesser stuff you can be just as successful. We've seen many pitchers in the majors who are like that."
The Nationals will be a tough team to reckon with in the postseason. With Max Scherzer (2.32), Gio Gonzalez (2.50) and Strasburg (2.64), they have the second-, third- and fourth-best ERAs in the NL, and the July acquisitions of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle have bolstered the bullpen. Of course, they still need to get Bryce Harper healthy and there's optimism they will.
Madson was called on to protect a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning Sunday. He sputtered a little and allowed three hits and two runs (his first in 13 innings with the Nats) before closing the door on the Phils. Williams drove in the Phillies' two runs in that inning with a base hit.
The Phillies finished the 11-game road trip with five wins and six losses, and Williams had 15 RBIs on the trip, giving him 45 in his first 64 big-league games. For a developing team, that was a positive. Lively's recent work has been a positive, too.