Strasburg out with strained oblique
ATLANTA — Already missing their best young player, their veteran leader, their top catcher and one member of their rotation, the Nationals took the field Friday night at Turner Field understanding how much was, and is, at stake this weekend against a Braves club that entered play with a 5 1/2-game lead on them in the NL East.
And then Stephen Strasburg departed after only two innings with a strained right oblique muscle, and suddenly a Nationals club that had been furiously trying to tread water for two months now looked on the verge of sinking below sea level.
The best ballclubs, though, have to overcome adversity somewhere along the way, and what better place for the Nationals to start than right here and right now, their season on the brink of major calamity?
So it was that Craig Stammen produced an emergency relief appearance for the ages — 12 batters faced, 12 batters retired — and a struggling lineup manufactured three early runs and a maligned bullpen hung on for dear life over the final three innings to pull out a 3-2 victory that felt like something far more significant than a run-of-the-mill win on the final day of May.
"It was an outstanding effort, and a big win," manager Davey Johnson said. "We needed it bad."
Boy, did they need it. A loss to the Braves, combined with the Strasburg injury, might well have sent the citizens of NatsTown into full-scale panic. Instead, everyone was able to breathe a sigh of relief and perhaps even crack a smile at night's end, even with the specter of a Strasburg DL stint potentially looming in the near future.
The Nationals won't know how long Strasburg will be sidelined with the oblique strain — an ailment he acknowledged he first began experiencing several starts ago but until now had not been noticeable when he took the mound — until after he is examined in Washington by team medical director Wiemi Douoguih.
But given the extreme caution the club has shown in the past with its young fireballer, the possibility certainly exists that the Nationals will have to proceed for at least a short while without him.
"It kind of puts a wrench into it," Strasburg admitted. "You've got to take care of the body. The biggest thing is figuring out what's going on. Get to the root of the problem, fix it, get back out there."
On this night, Strasburg's teammates made the most of a bad situation and pulled off one of their most impressive wins of the young season in the process. And leading the way was Stammen, who began warming in the bullpen in a hurry during the top of the third inning once it became clear something was wrong with Strasburg and then took the mound knowing it was now upon him to keep this game intact. And somehow churn out as many innings of relief as possible.
"I try to stick to my routine of taking it one pitch at a time," he said. "It may sound cliche, but that's really the only way you can look at it. If you put your heart and soul into every pitch every time, sooner or later you look up and you're through three or four innings."
Sure enough, the crowd of 36,650 looked up at the end of the sixth and realized Stammen had just completed four perfect innings of relief on only 49 pitches, preserving the Nationals' 3-1 lead and affording Johnson the opportunity to use the back end of his bullpen the way he would have had his starter actually gone six solid innings.
"That was the game, player of the game right there," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "He just came up, threw strikes, kept us in the game with the lead. Shoot, that was pretty outstanding."
There are few pitchers in baseball as versatile as Stammen, a former starter who has found his true calling as a jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen. He can enter in a jam and pitch his way out of it. He can close out a tight victory if needed. He can go extra innings should the situation arise. And, as he proved Friday, he can take over in an emergency and dominate a fearsome lineup.
"Craig, to me, is hands-down the best I've seen," Suzuki said. "I always tell him: 'Sheesh, whatever happened? You used to start? What happened?' But that's for another day, I guess."
At this rate, Stammen may have to start for this team, perhaps within the next week. Early Saturday morning, Class AAA reliever Erik Davis tweeted that he's "headed to the show," an addition the Nationals had been contemplating for several days. Davis' addition to the bullpen would suggest the club intends to place somebody else on the DL – the two obvious choices are Strasburg and Bryce Harper, neither a particularly welcome development — and that could clear the way for Stammen to start in Strasburg's place next week.
Stammen, for his part, wasn't thinking that far ahead following Friday night's win.
"I'm not going to get into that," he said. "I'll be here tomorrow. I'll have my cleats on. If it goes 20 innings, I'm sure I could flip something up there."
Stammen wound up earning the win on Friday, but it still required three more innings from the rest of the Nationals bullpen to finish this one off. That was easier said than done.
Tyler Clippard sent everyone on a full-blown roller coaster ride in the bottom of the seventh, giving up two singles, hitting two batters and uncorking a wild pitch yet striking out three others (including Dan Uggla and Chris Johnson in succession with the bases loaded) during a 32-pitch stress test.
"A little eventful," Suzuki said with a wry smile. "But I guess you guys expect that when Clip goes out there, right? He finds a way to get it done."
Drew Storen pitched the eighth inning in more conventional fashion, getting around a two-out walk to Ramiro Pena and getting Justin Upton to ground out to send this one into the ninth. Rafael Soriano then retired the side to earn his 15th save, though Freddie Freeman did take him deep to the base of the wall in right-center before Roger Bernadina hauled it in.
So it was that the Nationals somehow won this game. They arrived in town reeling from a rough interleague series with the Orioles, with several major contributors banged up and needing more time to heal. And then their ace was pulled after two innings with his own injury.
But look at the standings this morning and they're back over the .500 mark, with a chance to trim Atlanta's lead down to 3 1/2 games on Saturday night, in spite of whatever adversity still awaits this club.
"Really, we seem to be having all kinds of problems," Johnson said. "But we'll get through it."