SEATTLE — Saturday night at Safeco Field, Stephen Strasburg tormented the Seattle Mariners and assaulted the narratives attached to his season. He can’t pitch on the road? Ask Robinson Cano about that 97-mph, fit-in-a-Starbucks-cup fastball. He can’t be trusted against playoff teams? The Mariners are in wild-card position, and they spent nine innings walking back to the dugout and shaking their heads, beaten and amazed.
In the Washington Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the Mariners, Strasburg submitted one of the most dominant starts of his season, 7 2/3 controlled, powerful innings. He struck out eight, walked none and yielded six hits, five of them singles, two of which blooped into shallow right field. Jayson Werth staked him to a lead with a two-run homer in the first, and Strasburg choked the life out of the game until his final, 95th pitch.
“I think this was the best that we’ve seen him all year, and probably the most important,” Manager Matt Williams said. “He had two good ones, and then a little bit of a clunker. Tonight, to come back and answer, for him is important. If he throws it where he wants to, he can be dominant out there.”
Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick after Strasburg in the 2009 draft, ended Strasburg’s night with a solo home run to right field with two outs in the eighth inning. As Williams walked to the mound to remove him, Nationals infielders rushed to the mound. In the outfield, Denard Span and Werth convened. “I’ve never see him pitch like that,” Span told Werth.
Strasburg increased his league-leading strikeout total to 210, which eclipsed Gio Gonzalez’s 207 in 2012 as the most by a Nationals pitcher since baseball returned to Washington. Strasburg mixed efficiency with his power. He mowed through the first inning in five pitches. He struck out the side in the fourth inning with 12 pitches.
“Pitching in an American League park, where I didn’t have to hit, I felt like there was an opportunity to go deep in the game if I just let it fire early,” Strasburg said. “I got into a rhythm. I had pretty good fastball command today, and that set up all my other pitches.”
The performance further entrenched the Nationals in first place over the Atlanta Braves, who lost to the Miami Marlins earlier Saturday night. The Nationals hold a seven-game lead. September remains one day away, and so it may be early for magic numbers. But, if you’re curious, the Nationals’ is 21.
“I think we got a month to go, and arguably the most important month of my career,” Werth said. “Ask me in a month, or maybe two, and I’ll have a better answer for you. I like the way we’re playing. I like the way we’re going about it. I like our team. We got a long way to go.
“It’s no secret: I want to win another championship. I want another ring. Those were my intentions when I came here. In order for that to happen, we’re going to have to play good, I’m going to have to play good and we’ve got a long, hard road ahead of us.”
Strasburg threw to backup catcher Jose Lobaton for the fourth consecutive start, a partnership Williams unconvincingly said was born out of pure coincidence. Lobaton smacked three singles, only his fourth three-hit game of the season, and scored a run. But his largest contribution remained how he handles the Nationals’ pitching staff.
Whether or not Lobaton will become Strasburg’s personal catcher, Lobaton has affected Strasburg and the Nationals like a powerful elixir. In Lobaton’s 17 starts since June 21, the Nationals are 15-2 and their pitchers have a 1.88 ERA. In the 12 starts he has made with Lobaton behind the plate this season, Strasburg has a 2.76 ERA.
“He works extremely hard back there, and he calls a great game,” Strasburg said. “Things are working right, and I was just able to get in kind of auto-pilot mode.”
Between starts, Lobaton told Strasburg, “Sometimes, you got to be aggressive on the mound.” He wanted Strasburg to not be afraid to pitch inside. In his previous start, he allowed the San Francisco two homers and five runs in four innings. Strasburg made mistakes when he tried to pitch inside, missing over the plate. Lobaton wanted Strasburg to miss inside instead, to instill fear in batters.
Strasburg noticed in the bullpen how much control he had for his fastball. He told himself we would not be deterred by aggressive, to execute his pitches regardless. Strasburg rarely missed all night.
Early on, Lobaton could tell Strasburg could precisely locate his fastball to the right side of the plate, not necessarily inside or outside. And so Lobaton called fastballs outside to lefties and inside to right-handed hitters. He stuck mostly to fastballs and change-ups.
He fired his best pitch of the night at the ideal moment. With two outs in the third inning, Austin Jackson exploited Strasburg’s indifference and stole second, putting two runners in scoring position. At the plate stood Cano, owner of perhaps the smoothest left-handed swing in the sport. On a 1-2 count, Strasburg dotted a 97-mph fastball on the outside sliver of the plate and at the knees. The pitch froze Cano and ended the inning.
“I just stuck to my game plan,” Strasburg said. “I made them hit my best stuff.”
Strasburg’s fourth pushed the limits for how dominant an inning can be pitched. Strasburg threw 12 pitches, induced five swing-and-misses and struck out Kendrys Morales, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison, all swinging. Strasburg’s operation on Morrison was particularly diabolical. Morrison took a first-pitch curveball for strike one. He swung over a change-up for strike two. Strasburg blazed a 97-mph fastball past him for strike three. Strasburg hopped off the mound and trotted to the dugout.
“His fastball today was different,” Lobaton said. “It was kind of like a heavy ball today. He was right there on the corner. He was really good. The way the change-up was today, if he can be like every time, he’s going to be tough.”
Strasburg pitched the entire night with a lead. Span led off the game with a fly ball to left-center field off Mariners lefty Roenis Elias. Ranging over from center, Jackson bumped into left fielder Ackley, and the ball plopped to the grass for a game-opening, two-base error.
Two batters later, Werth, one of four Nationals who homered off Felix Hernandez on Friday night, walked to the plate. He had never faced Elias, and Elias beat him with one fastball that he fouled away. Elias tried another inside fastball on 2-2, and Werth was ready. Werth crushed it over a small scoreboard beyond the left field fence, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
Werth has not made many mistakes in the past 13 games, ever since he received a cortisone injection for his inflamed right shoulder. Since the shot, Werth has gone 16 for 43 with three doubles, three home runs, 11 RBI and 10 walks.
The Nationals added to the lead in the fifth, when Anthony Rendon mashed a two-out double – his 34th of the season – to the left-center gap. Lobaton motored home from second to put the Nationals ahead, 3-0.
The Mariners only got to Strasburg on the last pitch he threw. Once he exited, left-hander Matt Thornton, the untouchable waiver-wire reliever, struck out Cano to end the eighth inning. Closer Rafael Soriano watched Morales smash his first pitch to the warning track in left field, but he ended the night with his 30th save.
Soriano ripped out his shirttail to commemorate the save. But the night had belonged to Strasburg.