There are nights when the Nationals hope Stephen Strasburg takes the mound and does something like this, and then there are nights when the Nationals need Stephen Strasburg to take the mound and do something like this.
It might sound harsh to suggest a team already on a 7-game winning streak needed eight innings of 1-run ball from its erratic right-hander. But make no mistake, the Nats desperately needed it from Strasburg on this night, given the fact as many as four members of their bullpen weren’t available to pitch in anything other than an emergency after back-to-back, extra-inning games.
Strasburg himself understood the situation, and thus was particularly pleased with the performance he put forth to helped lead his team to an 8-1 thumping of the Diamondbacks, extending their winning streak to eight games.
“I guess it’s what the doctor ordered,” he said.
Strasburg’s teammates certainly appreciated the effort.
“I don’t necessarily think that Stephen went out there thinking he had to go eight tonight; I don’t think any of our starters ever feel like they have to do that,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “But the way Stephen pitched, I hope, is indicative to what we’re going to see in the future. He’s been great a lot in his career, but tonight was one of those games where he was really fun to watch.”
Why was Strasburg so fun to watch? Because he went right after Arizona’s hitters, wasting few pitches, getting lots of weak contact and letting his defense do the work.
Strasburg struck out only four batters, a rare low total for the man who leads the NL in that department. But he didn’t need punch outs on this night. He needed quick outs, giving himself the best chance of pitching deep enough into the night to give his relievers a much-deserved break.
“Not a lot of strikeouts, but a lot of groundballs,” manager Matt Williams said. “Limited pitch count, putting the ball in play, which is good.”
Strasburg made one mistake — a fastball over the plate to David Peralta in the top of the first that landed in the right-field bleachers — but otherwise cruised through his outing. Pitching with a comfortable lead most of the night after his teammates posted a 6-spot in the bottom of the third, he was free to attack the strike zone with mostly fastballs, and as such walked off the mound after the eight inning with only 95 pitches to his name.
To that point, not a soul had stirred in the Nationals’ bullpen. But then the phone rang, Matt LeCroy picked it up and Jerry Blevins (who had appeared only once in the previous four days and was the lone member of the relief corps who actually needed work) began to limber up for the ninth inning.
As much as Strasburg would have liked the opportunity to go for his second career complete game, he understood his manager’s rationale.
“If it was a shutout, I think you’d have to rip the ball out of my hands,” he said. “But Jerry didn’t get an opportunity to pitch in a while, and it was a good situation to get him out there and get him some good work in. Down the stretch, we’re going to need all 25 guys, so I understand completely.”
Thus ended a start by Strasburg that, while short on highlight material, might well have been among the most-impressive performances of his career. Knowing what his team needed of him, he went out and did just that.
It was the latest twist in what has been an odd season for the former No. 1 draft pick. Scrutinized mercilessly at times — and justifiably so — he still wakes up Wednesday morning sporting a 3.41 ERA, career-high 198 strikeouts and only 38 walks in 171 1/3 innings.
Could Strasburg be better? Sure, and he’ll be the first to say it. But at this point, what has transpired to this point means far less than what transpires from this point on.
If Strasburg can do more of what he did Tuesday night, the Nationals will find themselves in good position when it really counts.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “Got to roll with the highs and lows. Just got to go out there and give it everything you have when your name is called.”