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.