The Nationals handed Stephen Strasburg the ball Wednesday night and asked him for so much. They needed a Band-Aid for their battered bullpen, a halt to their losing streak and a renewal of their swagger. They asked him to make their offensive funk irrelevant and to prevent a disastrous road trip. They asked Strasburg to do what aces do.
Strasburg delivered on everything he could control, even if the Nationals mangled everything he couldn’t. Strasburg allowed one run over seven innings, and then he watched what would have been his third win, and his second in a row, slip away.
The Nationals’ 4-2, 10-inning loss included many hallmarks of their 3-6 road swing. A dearth of offense. Spotty relief pitching. Finding a way to lose. But it also included a overwhelming high point. Even if the end made it for naught, Strasburg pitched like an ace. Strasburg fired seven strong innings, allowing just one run in a duel with Giants right-hander Matt Cain. He struck out seven, including four of his final five batters.
There has been much talk of Strasburg’s “struggles” this year. That can stop now. When the Nationals left for the West Cost nine days ago, questions persisted about Strasburg’s mental acuity. In two starts, he has quieted them. First, he went a career-best eight innings in a steely victory in San Diego. Second, he shut down the defending world champions at a precarious moment in his team’s season. He lowered his ERA to 2.66 to go with 62 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings.
“I think for the most part, I’ve been able to make an adjustment with my fastball,” Strasburg said. “I’m still not quite perfect command or where I want it to be. But I’m missing in better spots and not leaving as many pitches up.”
Tuesday night, it took him a few innings to settle in. He walked three of the first 11 hitters he faced, and the Giants wrapped four of their five hits off Strasburg in the first three innings. They scored one off him in the second, when Angel Pagan singled in Blanco.
“I just got more comfortable out there, started to feel the baseball a little better,” Strasburg said. “It was tough trying to work on getting my command going in the bullpen. There was a ton of wind out there, so I couldn’t really throw many strikes in the bullpen. It was a little bit of an adjustment once I got out there.”
Once Strasburg solved the free-swinging Giants, though, he shut them down. Giants clogged the bases for the first three innings. Then Strasburg retired 14 of the final 15 hitters he faced, including six via strikeout.
In the first, the Giants loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, but Strasburg whiffed Belt with a nasty change-up, which would become a recurring theme. Strasburg’s first four strikeouts all came when the Giants whiffed at his change-up, a pitch that travels 89 or 90 mph and swerves like a paper airplane. Reigning MVP Posey struck out swinging at one to end the third and then another in the sixth.
“I have a lot of confidence in all my pitches,” Strasburg said. “It’s just kind of reading what the hitter is trying to do.”
After Strasburg left after seven with a 2-1 lead, he could only watch the Nationals lose their fourth straight.
“It’s a tough one for us,” Strasburg said. “One out away. But it’s over with.”
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 7, Toledo 5: Corey Brown went 1 for 3 with a home run. Carlos Rivero went 2 for 4 with a double. Brian Jeroloman went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk. Ryan Tatusko allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings on three hits and a walk, striking out nine.
Harrisburg 8, Erie 2: Anthony Rendon, back at third base, went 0 for 2 with a walk. Jerad Head went 3 for 4 with two doubles. Rick Hague went 2 for 3. Destin Hood went 2 for 3 with a home run. Caleb Clay allowed one earned run in six innings on five innings and no walks, striking out three.
Potomac 6, Frederick 5: Making his first start of the season, Sammy Solis allowed no earned runs in two innings on three hits and a walk, striking out one. Michael Taylor went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk
Hagerstown 5, Greensboro 4: Shawn Pleffner went 3 for 5 with two doubles. Craig Manuel went 2 for 3 with a walk. Bryan Harper, Bryce’s brother, allowed no runs in two innings on no hits and no walks, striking out one and earning the win in relief.