Sunday, August 15, 2010 6:38 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
There will come a time, perhaps not too far in the future, when Jim Riggleman will let Stephen Strasburg take the mound for the sixth inning of a tie game sitting on 85 pitches.
That time wasn't Sunday afternoon, though, not with Strasburg still easing his way back from a brief stint on the disabled list, and not when a brief fan protest threw a surprise delay into the Washington Nationals' game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So a crowd of 21,695 -- the smallest by far to see Strasburg pitch in 11 big-league starts -- witnessed the odd sight of the rookie right-hander batting for himself to lead off the bottom of the fifth, then deferring to reliever Tyler Clippard for the top of the sixth.
"I was undecided whether I wanted him to go back out there anyway," Riggleman said. "Once we sat in there a little bit longer with the protest going on, I just decided, you know what, I'm not going to send him back out there."
The move ultimately paid off for the Nationals, who turned Ian Desmond's go-ahead single, Ryan Zimmerman's solo homer and four scoreless innings of relief into a 5-3 victory over the Diamondbacks.
The dominant work from relievers Clippard (who tossed two innings to earn his ninth win), Sean Burnett (who struck out two in the eighth) and Drew Storen (who retired the side on six pitches in the ninth to earn his second save) was perhaps the most-encouraging development of the afternoon.
A Washington bullpen that was beginning to show a few cracks, after the trade two weeks ago of closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins, has settled in since. In the club's last five wins, relievers have pitched a combined 14 13 innings, allowing one run on five hits while striking out 18.
"There's a little bit less structure since the Capps trade, but as relievers in the big leagues, you have to be prepared the whole game for whatever happens," Clippard said. "So I think it's helped us in that sense. We're ready at all times and bearing down. We don't get too lackadaisical down there. We're always focused on what's going on, which is huge. Everybody seems to be feeding off each other down there."
Closing duties have been split between Storen and Burnett, who have recorded two saves apiece, though Burnett knows his save opportunities have come because of the Diamondbacks' left-handed-heavy lineup and that the job will soon be Storen's full-time.
"In the big scheme of things, we understand Drew is the closer," said Burnett, who has a 1.96 ERA and 21 strikeouts over his last 18 13 innings. "Maybe not so much permanently now, but they're building toward that."
Storen, the rookie right-hander one year removed from closing at Stanford, was admittedly nervous last weekend in Los Angeles when he earned his first career save. The trot in for Sunday's ninth inning was not nearly as daunting an experience.
"Honestly, it was kind of like a re-debut that first time I went out there in the ninth," Storen said. "It was a new situation. I didn't know what to expect. Once you realize it's not that much different, it's just a different inning, you're able to build on that. I thought I did a good job of that today."
Strasburg could probably relate to his fellow rookie, because he, too, admitted being a little out-of-sorts in his return from the DL Tuesday night. He wound up getting tagged by the Florida Marlins for six runs in 4 13 innings.
Having settled back into his routine and confident his shoulder is fine, Strasburg asserted himself from the time he took the mound Sunday and dominated four of his five innings.
His only struggles came in the second. Adam LaRoche led off with a homer on a 2-0 fastball. Strasburg's bigger mistake came three batters later, when he fielded a slow roller off Stephen Drew's bat but then airmailed his throw down the first-base line. That three-base error resulted in two unearned runs.
"I got a little sped up," he said. "Instead of fielding it with my glove, I bare-handed it. After that, I realized I had a lot more time than I needed, so I tried to throw it a little bit slower and it sailed on me. It was pretty much bad fundamentals all around for that play."
Otherwise, Strasburg was in control of things. He struck out seven Diamondbacks without issuing a walk, and he used his full repertoire to do it. After throwing only one changeup against the Marlins, he threw 16 on Sunday, three for strikeouts.
"I really have to get that going, because it's a good pitch," he said. "Guys have had a tough time handling it all year. I've really got to trust my stuff. My last outing against Florida, I was really trying to find it the whole time, instead of just going out there and letting it come to me. So I wanted to go out there from the get-go and throw all of my pitches and get everything going."
When Strasburg, sitting on 85 pitches, led off the bottom of the fifth by grounding out, everyone in attendance assumed he'd be back on the mound for the top of the sixth. But when four people ran onto the field later in the fifth, protesting Arizona's new immigration law, it left Strasburg sitting on the bench long enough to convince Riggleman not to send him back out.
With Strasburg looking stronger each time out after his DL stint, his leash will likely grow longer.
"That delay wasn't particularly that long," Riggleman said. "It was just more that I was only going to let him go another 12 or 15 pitches anyway. If this was down the road further, or if the issue hadn't come up a few weeks ago, I would have certainly sent him back out there today."
Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.