As Stephen Strasburg stood on the dugout steps on a windy Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park, an above-capacity crowd of 41,918 roared for him. They had demanded a curtain call, not for the magnificence he can produce on the mound, but for the power he had supplied with his bat.
Batting gloves still on, he acknowledged them with a quick wave to his right and then another to his left. The once-in-a-generation pitching talent had stroked his first career home run to left field, a surprising development in Sunday’s 9-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles.
One would expect a smile, even a grin, at such a moment. Not from the ultra-competitive Strasburg, whose roller-coaster day began with a sub-par inning, nearly turned disastrous an inning later and then, following a rally and back-to-back home runs by Jesus Flores and Strasburg himself, turned completely around. Strasburg remained expressionless as he watched the ball sail out of the ballpark, and as he stood on the dugout steps before the fans.
“I’m not big for going out there and showboating and everything,” he said. “It was great but I know my place. I’m not a real hitter out there, so I’m not going to act like I do it all the time. Just run around the bases. But it was definitely a good feeling.”
It took some pestering from his teammates in the dugout for Strasburg to realize it was okay for him to smile.
“It took a while,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.” I think a lot of guys screaming at him to smile before he finally cracked it.”
Battling through minor arm discomfort and overall fatigue that he attributed to over-training and overcompensating since his last eventful start, Strasburg wasn’t feeling well to start. Though he later found his groove, retiring the final 10 batters he faced, his first two innings were arduous.
In his first run through the Orioles’ lineup, he struck out only one batter, the opposing pitcher — a rarity for Strasburg, who ranks among the National League leaders in strikeouts. Three batters into the game, he had given up two singles and a run on 16 pitches.
The second inning featured all kinds of mistakes. A routine flyball to left field fell uncaught. Bryce Harper ranged far to his right from center field to help out Tyler Moore, a minor league first baseman who has seen action in left field only four times this season. Harper positioned himself under the flyball, had it in his glove but dropped it.
“I probably should have let Tyler take it but I thought I had a good beat on it and the wind took it a little bit,” Harper said. “I should have caught it and I take full responsibility for that.”
A passed ball by Flores in the same inning, while Strasburg faced catcher Luis Exposito, allowed two Orioles to advance a base, which further extended Strasburg. The two mistakes allowed the Orioles to score two runs as they sent seven batters to the plate and forced Strasburg to labor through 51 pitches in two innings.
Once Manager Davey Johnson discovered that Strasburg was dealing with arm fatigue, he pulled him. Strasburg ended up allowing only one earned run on four hits and striking out eight through five innings.
But it was as if Strasburg, angry about what had transpired on the field, wanted to make up for it at the plate. He slapped a single toward the right side of the infield in his first at-bat in the third inning. Harper, who owed his pitcher some help, then knocked a two-run triple to right field to bring home Strasburg and Danny Espinosa.
On a full-count, Harper, who finished 2 for 4, patiently waited on a 69-mph curveball from left-handed starter Wei-Yin Chen and drilled it sharply to right field. Right fielder Nick Markakis dove to his left and had the ball in his glove, but it popped out as he hit the ground.
Strasburg’s performance provided an unexpected lift for a sputtering offense, which also found life in Espinosa. The second baseman, mired in a sophomore slump, showed signs of breaking out from the leadoff spot. Hitting there for the first time this season Sunday, he finished 2 for 5, with a two-run home run in a three-run eighth inning.
In the fourth inning, with the scored tied at 3, Flores homered to right-center field, and then came Strasburg’s own home run. After falling behind 0-2 to Chen, Strasburg swung hard at a 75-mph curveball, sending the crowd to its feet.
Strasburg rounded the bases slowly, throttling back even more once he rounded first base. (“He might be the only guy on this team that I can beat,” LaRoche said.) Strasburg credits his improved comfort with the bat — he has four extra-base hits on the season — to work he did in the offseason with a friend in San Diego and Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
“I feel a lot stronger,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t feel like I have a log in my hands.”