By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; D01
Stephen Strasburg treats the mania whirling around him as peripheral details. The fixation on his strikeout totals, appearances on magazine covers and pitching in front of President Obama amount to distractions from his singular pursuit with the Washington Nationals. "The only thing I'm worried about," Strasburg said Wednesday, "is winning."
While Obama and the other 40,325 fans at Nationals Park marveled at Strasburg's dominance, he and his teammates stewed over his team's gut-wrenching, 11-inning, 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals' fourth straight defeat. Strasburg left after seven innings, long before Ryan Zimmerman's across-the-diamond throw deflected off Adam Dunn's glove to give Alex Rios a game-winning infield single off Drew Storen. Before he exited, Strasburg broke a 39-year-old record for most strikeouts after three major league starts.
"That wasn't a goal of mine," Strasburg said. "It's never going to be a goal of mine. My goal is to go out there and help the team win. It's all about wins and losses at this level. You can go out there and strike everybody out, but at the end of the day if you don't keep your team within striking distance, what does that all matter?"
Strasburg, of course, gave the Nationals a chance to win. But he could only watch from the home dugout, wearing a red jacket, as the game was decided. With Mark Kotsay on third base, Storen was one out away from two scoreless extra innings. Rios ripped a sharp groundball down the third base line.
"I thought it was a double for sure," Riggleman said.
Zimmerman made a seemingly impossible, backhanded diving stop and a desperate snap throw to first base. Dunn stretched out and up, his glove over his head.
If he caught the ball, Rios would likely have been out. Instead, the ball grazed his glove and trickled to the fence. The crowd groaned. The White Sox dugout erupted.
"If I need to throw it hard, I throw it hard," Zimmerman said. "It was a tough play, tough game."
As White Sox starter Gavin Floyd, a Severna Park native, threatened to upstage Strasburg's second home start with an overpowering performance of his own, Strasburg needed only 85 pitches to strike out 10 batters in seven innings. He brought his season total to 32, breaking the record J.R. Richard set in 1971. Strasburg retired 15 straight at one point and allowed one run on four hits and no walks, shrinking his ERA to 1.86.
Obama, wearing a White Sox cap to support his hometown team, settled into a seat in the owners suite on the third base side as Ryan Zimmerman came to bat in the bottom of the first inning. Fans behind the visitors' dugout turned, cheering and brandishing cellphone cameras. For once, not every eyeball in the building was locked on Strasburg.
The White Sox, with some luck and well-placed dinks, started quickly against Strasburg. Juan Pierre led off the game with a slow grounder to Dunn, who flipped to Strasburg covering first. He awkwardly reached for the base, and the fleet Pierre beat his foot. Omar Vizquel followed with a bloop to right, placed perfectly for a double. Rios's weak groundout scored the game's first run.
After Vizquel's double, Strasburg could not have commanded the game more thoroughly. He retired the next 15 batters he faced, striking out nine of them. The string lasted until Floyd, of all batters, slapped a single on a 97-mph fastball down the right field line in the sixth inning, just his third career hit.
Floyd matched Strasburg pitch for pitch. The Nationals managed two hits and a walk through six innings, all of which Floyd erased with double plays. The third Strasburg contributed to. In the sixth, he failed to convert a sacrifice bunt, and Ian Desmond wandered too far off first base and was picked off. After Desmond's blunder, the Nationals had sent the minimum 18 batters to the plate.
When Dunn walked to the plate in the seventh, the Nationals had still not moved a base runner past first base. Zimmerman stood on first after a two-out single up the middle against Floyd. Dunn followed and crunched a line drive just to the left of center fielder Rios and over his head. Dunn cruised into second, and Zimmerman scored to tie the game.
Strasburg ended his night by striking out Alexei Ramírez. He had thrown only 85 pitches, 15 shy of his rough pitch count. "He could have gone 10 or 11 innings tonight," Riggleman said. "He was breezing." But the Nationals did not yet want Strasburg throwing into the eighth inning, something he did not do in his 11 minor league starts. Riggleman considered leaving Strasburg in for the eighth, but decided Tyler Clippard could handle the eighth.
"Nobody is telling me not to send him back out there, he can't go more than seven," Riggleman said. "I really felt where we were, I wasn't going to let him go nine. We felt pretty good that we were going to be able to put another zero up there" with the bullpen.
Strasburg admitted he "definitely wanted to go out there and definitely finish the game out," but he did not lobby for the chance to do so.
"He understands what the situation is," Riggleman said. "A year or two from now, that might be something he would do."
White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillén was impressed enough to call Strasburg "maybe the best pitcher in the NL."
Strasburg joined his teammates afterward trying to remain resilient after falling a season-worst six games below .500. In the clubhouse, Brian Orakpo and two Washington Redskins teammates, oddly, walked through and introduced themselves to Dunn and Zimmerman.
The Nationals believed they had played hard and well, and their stagnant offense generated too many hard hits at fielders. Even if they have to wait four more days for Strasburg to pitch again, they still believe they are close to doing what's most important.
"As long as keep playing hard these next few games," Strasburg said, "we're going to get some wins."