“It wasn’t pretty,” Lombardozzi said. “But I was able to dump it down the line there.”
Ryan Zimmerman followed with a two-run single, which further cemented Strasburg’s win. Five days prior, in New York, Strasburg threw 108 pitches, setting a career-high. He erased any questions about how he could respond to the workload.
Strasburg navigated the first five innings mostly with his sinker and curveball, which he had made an adjustment with in the bullpen before his start in New York, overthrowing less and trusting the pitch more. Typically, breaking balls come back last after a pitcher returns from Tommy John surgery.
“It’s getting better to what it was in college — not only be able to throw it for a strike but also throw it for a swing-and-miss pitch,” Strasburg said. “I’m not expecting it to be perfect every day, but it’s about making adjustments. I have a much better idea of what I need to do to correct it when it isn’t right.”
In the first five innings, the Astros pushed only one base runner past first base and none past second. Strasburg cruised into the sixth having thrown 61 pitches.
The third time through the lineup, though, the Astros mustered a rally, loading the bases with no outs on two singles and a walk. Pitching coach Steve McCatty visited the mound to calm Strasburg. Carlos Lee flied to intermediate center field, and Ankiel made an incredible throw, a strike to Wilson Ramos’s chest from about 310 feet away that held Schafer on third. The crowd gave the non-out at the plate a standing ovation.
“I would have called it a strike, that’s for sure,” Strasburg said.
With one out, Strasburg struck out Travis Buck, swinging at and missing a 2-1 change-up and then a 95-mph fastball. The crowd, small in number, rose and roared — Strasburg was actually going to escape this jam. But Chris Johnson, after fouling away a 96-mph fastball, roped a 97-mph heater to right field. The single scored two runs, tied the game and sucked the life out of Nationals Park.
One half inning later, Lombardozzi pumped life back into it. After the game, as Lombardozzi gave an on-field television interview, Jayson Werth drenched him with a bucket of orange Gatorad. “I didn’t see it coming,” Lombardozzi said. “It was pretty cold.”
He knew the moment would not last. Even after Lombardozzi’s four hits, Johnson never had any question about who would play second base Tuesday night. Lombardozzi will return to the bench. “As much as I like him,” Johnson said, “Espi’s my second baseman.”
Lombardozzi could accept that. He will always remember Monday night, the game he bailed out the Nationals’ ace.