PITTSBURGH — Thursday afternoon, before batting practice, Davey Johnson gathered the Washington Nationals in their clubhouse at PNC Park. The manager told his players he remained behind them, that he trusted them to pull out of their offensive tailspin and a three-game losing streak. Johnson wanted to ease their minds, and he had chosen a surefire moment for building confidence. In a few hours, he would send Stephen Strasburg to the mound.
“That’s a good night to have a team meeting, isn’t it?” Johnson said.
Strasburg faced the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first time since his 14-strikeout debut on June 8, 2010, and in a 4-2 Nationals victory before 15,381, he nearly matched that total. Strasburg struck out 13 in six innings, the most since his maiden start, the last one on his 103rd and final pitch with the bases loaded and the Nationals leading by one run.
In his first full season since Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has committed to becoming a new pitcher, inducing early contract and eschewing strikeouts with less power and more precision. He has found dominance hard to shake. Strasburg is tied for the major league lead in strikeouts with 51 in 44 innings pitched, a rate of 10.43 per nine innings.
“Some days you’re only going to have one or two pitches working,” Strasburg said. “Today, all three of them were working. . . . When the stuff’s working like tonight, I’m just going to go out there and just throw it. And it doesn’t really matter what you throw.”
Thursday night, the Pirates swung and missed at 20 of his 103 pitches. Starting with Andrew McCutchen to end the first inning, Strasburg struck out seven consecutive batters, matching his longest stretch from his debut. He struck out eight of the nine Pittsburgh starters.
Strasburg pelted the outer reaches of the strike zone with his four-seam fastball, which topped out at 98 mph, and the Pirates could not touch it, especially when he sprinkled in his boomerang curve and unholy change-up. Strasburg didn’t even bother with his two-seamer, the pitch he uses for groundballs more than whiffs, and the strikeouts kept coming.
“It’s nice when you really need a win to have a guy go out there where, okay guys, let’s push a couple runs across and we’re going to have a pretty good chance,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
For the Nationals, a couple of runs has been no guarantee. But Roger Bernadina and LaRoche — respectively, one of the outfielders trying to fill in for Jayson Werth and the Nationals’ MVP thus far — each blasted home runs in the decisive sixth inning. Rick Ankiel added another homer in the ninth.
“It was almost a laugher, because we got that last run,” Johnson joked.
The barrage in the sixth gave Strasburg the lead, and he had to fight to keep it. He struck out Alex Presley looking at a 96-mph fastball for the second out. Johnson planned on letting Strasburg pitch the seventh inning. With the bases empty, the only question seemed whether or not he would match 14 strikeouts.
Suddenly, and after he had painted corners all night, Strasburg lost the strike zone. “Just starting to nibble a little bit, trying to throw the perfect pitch,” he said. He walked three straight Pirates, his only walks of the night, to load the bases for Garrett Jones.
Strasburg had struck out Jones four times in five previous meetings. Pitching coach Steve McCatty visited the mound. The sparse crowd roared. No relievers stirred in the bullpen.
“I was going to challenge him,” Strasburg said. “I wasn’t going to walk him and walk in a run to tie it up. I was going to make him beat me.”
With the count 2-2, Ryan Zimmerman trotted to the mound from third base and whispered to Strasburg with his glove over his mouth, telling him to switch up signs. Strasburg nodded.
Strasburg toed the rubber and peered in for the sign. He reared and fired a fluid, easy 96-mph fastball at Jones’s knees. Jones swung through the pitch. The bases emptied, the Nationals maintained the lead and Strasburg walked off the mound, his final pitch the most important of the night.
“He was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “He was overpowering.”
Even if the Nationals (19-12) had Strasburg, they needed some offense. Johnson held the team meeting in the Nationals’ clubhouse prior to the game, addressing the mounting pressure on an offense that entered Thursday ranked 28th in the majors in scoring and had struck out 23 times the past two games.
Johnson also shared one-on-one conversations with several players. Bernadina told him he wanted to step forward with Werth out for three months. Johnson implored him to relax: “Don’t try to hit home runs, and you’ll hit them.”
In the sixth, the Nationals trailed, 2-0, after Strasburg allowed his only two runs, one unearned, in the fourth. Bernadina annihilated a 3-1 fastball from Pirates starter Kevin Correia, a 430-foot, opposite-field home run over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field.
“It definitely felt good,” Bernadina said. “I kind of forgot how that feels.”
Zimmerman followed with a walk, bringing up LaRoche. He came to the plate to boos, as he had in every at-bat of the series. He clobbered a slider to center for his team-leading sixth home run of the season, putting the Nationals ahead 3-2, his second homer of the season. Against his former team, LaRoche went 4 for 8 with two homers, a double and a walk in the series.
“I don’t think I’m a fan favorite here,” LaRoche said. “That was nice to hear them boo a little louder on a couple of those shots.”
Strasburg held the lead with his sixth-inning escape act, an exclamation point on his dominant night. Henry Rodriguez rebounded from his implosion Tuesday night with his seventh save.
The Nationals gathered after the game in their clubhouse, winners again and in first place. Some players argued about the proper pronunciation of the word “hammock.” Gio Gonzalez, Friday’s starter, planned a miniature golf outing for when the Nationals return to Washington. The mood in the room had turned from hours earlier, when the Nationals talked about their offensive problems, before Strasburg had taken the mound and dominated.
“Next time Stras pitches,” Johnson said, “I’ll probably have another meeting.”