Strasburg at top of his game

Strasburg at top of his game
July 25, 2012, 10:02 pm
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NEW YORK -- As much as Davey Johnson and Steve McCatty have been pounding the idea into Stephen Strasburg's head to use his fastball more and not fiddle around with his devastating offspeed stuff, it's not always as easy as it sounds.

"Once you've got, I guess, the lights are on and you're facing another team, you want to go out there and really make your stuff really dirty," Strasburg said. "It's something that I think when I take a step back and relax and let it happen, instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot."

If that's true, Strasburg might have been so relaxed this afternoon he mistakenly thought he was lounging on a Caribbean beach instead of standing on the mound at Citi Field before a crowd of 35,517.

Utilizing his fastball more than ever and attacking the Mets lineup with an aggressive approach the Nationals haven't always seen out of him, Strasburg steamrolled his way through seven innings and pitched his club to a 5-2 victory, a series sweep and a new high-water mark for the season.

Yes, the Nationals could do no wrong in Queens this week. With three straight victories over the Mets, they improved to 58-39, moving 19 games over .500 for the first time since July 5, 2005 (the best record the club has ever owned since arriving in the District).

Pending the outcome of the Yankees' game in Seattle, the Nationals could arrive in Milwaukee later this evening owning the best record in baseball. And no one inside their clubhouse seems the least bit surprised by it.

"We know we're good," outfielder Michael Morse said. "That's what it come down to. Our pitching's really good. Hitters are doing their job. So why not have confidence? Why not have a little swagger?"

It's not hard to have swagger when you can send a pitcher like Strasburg to the mound in search of a sweep. Even though he hasn't been his absolute sharpest lately, the 24-year-old All-Star did enter this game with a 2.85 ERA and a major-league-leading 140 strikeouts.

And when he mowed down the top of New York's lineup in the top of the first on nine pitches (eight strikes), it quickly became obvious Strasburg would be in top form for this one.

"That is the Strasburg I've know for a long time," Johnson said. "That's him. That's what he does. He was very pitch-efficient from the get-go. He went right after guys."

And unlike Friday night's outing in which he helped strike the match to the Nationals' blown 9-0 lead against the Braves, he never let up.

Strasburg (11-4) retired the side in four of his seven innings. He never faced more than four batters in any frame. The only Mets to reach second base against him were Ike Davis (who homered to lead off the second) and Josh Thole (who doubled with two outs in the fifth).

Strasburg struck out 11, the fourth time he's reached double digits this season. He didn't walk a batter. And most impressively, he did all this while relying on his fastball more than usual.

Entering this start, Strasburg threw his fastball 62.4 percent of the time. Today, he threw it 71.3 percent of the time (67 of 94 total pitches).

"He's got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity," Johnson said. "But he's still a work in progress. The way he pitched today, he didn't use a lot of his breaking stuff, just sparingly. He located his fastball good. When he does that, he's capable of going nine innings. There was a lot left in the tank there today, I'll tell you that."

Indeed, Strasburg easily could have taken the mound for the bottom of the eighth (and perhaps even the bottom of the ninth) had his manager let him.

"Absolutely," the right-hander said. "I want to be a horse in the rotation that can ease up on the bullpen. I want to be the guy that they can trust me to go out there and get the job done late in the game."

The Nationals, of course, won't let Strasburg do that, not this season with a cap on his innings fast approaching. Perhaps in 2013 and beyond.

"No doubt about it, he had plenty left," Johnson said. "But this is kind of a strange year. I'm going to protect him as much as I can. He'll never go as far as he can."

On this day, seven innings of Strasburg's very best were enough.