The sideshow subsided during the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Rays, pushed into the background by the real show, the 23-year-old who might be the one pitcher best suited to snap a four-game losing streak. Over seven brilliant innings, Strasburg struck out 10 and allowed five hits, lowering his ERA to 2.46 and increasing his league-leading strikeout total to 110 in 84 innings. He won his sixth consecutive start, and the Nationals improved to 12-2 when he pitches.
The Rays swung and missed 20 times against him, which tied a career high. Strasburg blazed his 111th pitch at 98 mph past Desmond Jennings, the final statement in another command performance that improved as the innings piled up and the batters grew more helpless.
“He’s a true No. 1,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “And he’s still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him.”
The scuttlebutt over Joel Peralta’s ejection Tuesday night and the subsequent war of words between Johnson and Rays Manager Joe Maddon obscured the Nationals’ real predicament. They had lost four consecutive games, and the Atlanta Braves’ victory Wednesday afternoon temporarily shaved their lead in the National League East to three games over two teams. When the Nationals needed it, Strasburg played the stopper role, a notion he casts aside.
“You let that bother you, you’re not going to last long,” Strasburg said. “It’s out of my control. I can only do as much as I can on the days I pitch. And then other than that, in the dugout pulling for everybody.”
The Nationals scored the only runs they needed in the first inning, jumping out to a three-run lead. Steve Lombardozzi, the rookie infielder turned left fielder, made a clutch sliding catch to preserve the Nationals’ lead in the seventh inning. Tyler Clippard notched his 10th save in 10 tries. Peralta, awaiting discipline from Major League Baseball, made a cameo appearance, retiring the only two hitters he faced in the bottom of the eighth.
The game, though, belonged to Strasburg. He stood in the middle of the diamond after his final warmup pitch, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blaring, the extra electricity that accompanies any Strasburg start buzzing through the park. As he climbed the mound to start the game, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson approached him. After the shenanigans of the past two days, “I thought he was going to check my glove,” Strasburg said.
“Stras was getting ready to undress,” Johnson said.
But Nelson only asked to see the ball. It had bounced into second base on catcher Jesus Flores’s warmup toss, and Nelson wanted to ensure it had not been scuffed. Nelson inspected the baseball. Satisfied, Nelson flipped the ball back.