Craig Stammen, the Nationals’ sixth-inning muscle

(Dilip Vishwanat / Reuters)

The entire performance became irrelevant later, engulfed like the rest of the game by gushing champagne bottles, but Craig Stammen was downright ridiculous last night. He faced six batters, and he struck out all of them swinging. He threw 20 pitches, and the Phillies hitters swung at and missed seven.

Stammen pitched for the third consecutive day for the first time this year, which he said may have actually helped. “I’m usually a better pitcher when I don’t throw quite as hard,” Stammen said. “They always say a sinkerballer is better the more he throws. I think that was probably part of the reason yesterday. On the other end of it, it wasn’t like I was facing the ’27 Yankees, either. It was the bottom of their lineup, and one guy was the pitcher.”

Stammen entered in the sixth inning, the frame that is about to grow in importance. Sports Illustrated’s Joe Lemire wrote a smart, fascinating story on how crucial the sixth inning becomes in October, when managers grow less patient with starters and each out becomes a life-or-death ordeal.

Lemire’s story supports Davey Johnson’s preference for employing two long relievers. It also reinforced how fortunate the Nationals are to have Stammen, a reliever who can enter if a starter falters early, suck up outs and quiet down the game.

“He’s unbelievable,” closer Drew Storen said. “He pitches well in any situation. He’s just kind of a gamer. He doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he should. He can just go in there and punch all those guys out.”

Stammen’s importance is most visible in his sixth-inning work. In 21 games throwing the sixth, Stammen has a 1.83 ERA in 19 2/3 innings with a dominant 22 strikeouts and five walks. How many games has he given the Nationals a chance to win by keeping the Nationals close or ahead before the game gets to the back of the bullpen? Those outs will only become more meaningful in the playoffs.

“I think it’s going to be more important, because runs are at a premium,” Stammen said. “Every out matters so much. I think Davey has kind of saved us towards the end, because he knows he’s going to use us a lot in the playoffs.”

Also on Nationals Journal

Nationals-Phillies discussion thread: Game 161