Strasburg’s season had not been a pure disaster. His 1-5 record stood in contrast to a 3.10 ERA — better than last year — and 51 strikeouts in 49 1
3 innings. Only three National League starters had received less than his 2.76 runs of support per game. It was not his pitching that surprised observers and teammates. The way he responded to adversity, though, had disappointed.
In his last start, Strasburg cruised for four innings and quickly retired the first two batters in the fifth. Then Zimmerman made a throwing error, and Strasburg crumbled. The next five batters reached, and a superlative start had yielded to a four-run trainwreck. Davey Johnson, his manager, said Strasburg needed to push mistakes behind him. Wilson Ramos, his catcher, told him, “You need to fight.”
Now, with the bases loaded and a 5-0 lead, Strasburg needed to fight.
“I was going to go out there,” Suzuki said. “I was thinking about going out there and talking to him. Once he got the ball back, he looked at Zim and said, ‘I got you.’ Once he did that, I turned around and went back to home plate. Because I knew he was going to do it.”
He started Everth Cabrera with a curveball in the dirt, and Suzuki smothered it with a crucial block. Cabrera grounded out to first, enough to score a run but also enough to stop the bleeding.
Up came Will Venable. Strasburg fired a changeup, moving all night like a one-winged butterfly, for strike one. Venable fouled off a fastball for strike two. Suzuki called for another changeup, and Strasburg twirled one of his best. Venable swung and missed, haplessly early.
Strasburg reached the dugout steps at the same time as Zimmerman. Strasburg stuck up his palm, and Zimmerman slapped it hard with his glove.
“I was just happy we got out of the inning,” Zimmerman said. “Stephen threw good tonight. He attacked.”
The Nationals still led by four runs. Strasburg had not allowed the game to slip away after an error — a low bar, but still one he needed to cross.
“It was good to play behind him with the kind of confidence he had,” LaRoche said. “He gave up a run. He didn’t get down. He didn’t worry about it. He went right after the next guy. He looked a little more aggressive to me than he has in the past, as far as fastballs for strikes — if they hit ‘em, they hit ‘em.”
Throughout the game, Strasburg could hear fans yelling “Welcome home!” and “Go Aztecs!” “I’m just glad they remembered me,” he said, smiling. He felt no nerves, only embraced.
“It’s easy pitching in front of a lot of loved ones,” Strasburg said. “They just want to go out and support you either way.”
He had last pitched here in college, against UC-Davis, a game he remembered with ire because he had lasted only six innings. That had become a typical occurrence in the majors. On this night, he walked off the mound after the seventh inning and didn’t see Johnson standing on the top step.
Last year, when the Nationals placed Strasburg on an innings limit, Johnson lifted him one inning early in an effort to elongate his season. This year, Strasburg wants to be an ace. Johnson will cultivate the possibility.
“This year,” Johnson said, “I’m going to be pushing him.”
After Rafael Soriano closed out the Padres, the Nationals in the dugout poured on to the field to line up and shake hands. Strasburg hopped up the stairs first, and he led them.