Stephen Strasburg pitches six scoreless innings as Washington Nationals beat Florida Marlins

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- Stephen Strasburg crossed another threshold Friday night, unveiling a new way to assert himself as baseball's most electric attraction and best young pitcher.

Strasburg stuffed more dominance into some of his first seven starts than in Friday's game against the Florida Marlins, and in the recent past he may have found more ways to take your breath away. But on Friday night, as the Washington Nationals opened the second half of their season with a 4-0 victory before 27,037, Strasburg accomplished the most essential form of mastery a team can ask for from its ace: He allowed no runs in a start for the first time, shutting out the Marlins over six innings.

Strasburg survived a long first inning and operated for much of the night, at his own choosing, as a two-pitch pitcher. But he stranded six Marlins and allowed none to score, making Josh Willingham's three-run double in the sixth inning more than enough offense for the Nationals to start their second half with their third shutout of the season.

"You're not going to go out there and feel great, feel perfect, every single time," Strasburg said. "What separates the really good pitchers from the average ones is their ability to figure it out on the fly and make those adjustments without really giving up too many runs."

Or, in his case, any runs. Eventually, Strasburg reached his highest gear. He allowed just four hits, all singles. He struck out four of the final seven hitters he faced. Only one batter reached base among his last 11, and that was on an infield single by Hanley Ramírez that could have been negated had Cristian Guzmán's throw from second not skidded in the dirt. Strasburg improved his record to 4-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.03.

The start, though, brought trouble. Strasburg walked two Marlins -- including a 12-pitch walk by Gaby Sanchez, another rookie of the year candidate -- and threw 34 pitches in the first inning, the second time in three starts he exhausted more than a third of his allotted throws in the opening frame. Against the New York Mets on July 3, he needed 37 pitches to escape the first.

"That's a little agonizing for everybody," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "We want him to be able to throw six, seven innings. When you throw that many in the first, it becomes unlikely."

His towering ability allows Strasburg to turn the unlikely into reality. Strasburg mentality was not the issue: "He's extremely intense from Pitch One," Riggleman said. After the first, Strasburg diagnosed his problem. He was "flying open" in his delivery -- rotating his upper body too much and too quickly before releasing his pitch. The glitch made it especially hard for Strasburg to throw his curveball for strikes.

In the second, Strasburg fixed his mechanics and switched his approach on the fly. In some games this season, he has relied on his change-up. For a significant portion of last night, he abandoned the pitch. After Cody Ross hit a change-up to lead off the second with a single, Strasburg did not throw one in the next 44 pitches -- a span of 13 batters.

He snapped the streak by throwing one low and away that Sanchez flailed at to end the fifth with a strikeout. He threw one more all night. Of his 99 pitches, Strasburg used only seven change-ups.

"They didn't prove they could hit my fastball," Strasburg said. "I wasn't going to throw any change-ups to possibly make a mistake, leave it up, speed up their bats a little bit. That's a pitch that, if they can prove they can hit my other ones, then I'm going to throw that."

Said catcher Iván Rodríguez, "He can use one pitch to strike out one day, use another pitch to strike out another day."

After five innings, against Ricky Nolasco, the Nationals' offense had yet to conclude its all-star break. They had managed four hits and struck out seven times, the only hit outside of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn coming on Ian Desmond's bunt single.

The Nationals awoke in the sixth. Nyjer Morgan and Guzmán slapped consecutive singles to start the inning, and Dunn walked with one out to load the bases for Willingham. Nolasco could not have been concerned. Willingham had struck out in his first two at-bats against Nolasco, befuddled by his breaking balls.

With the game on the line, Nolasco started Willingham with a pair of strikes and tried to finish him off with another curveball, which Willingham watched for a ball. Nolasco tried a slider, and "Hammer was ready for it," Riggleman said. Willingham waited and laced it to right field. As the ball rolled into the right-center gap, all three runners motored home. Rodríguez followed with a sacrifice fly after Willingham advanced to third.

With Strasburg on the mound, a 4-0 lead seemed insurmountable. He ended his night on his 99th pitch, a curveball that froze Ross. He dumped his bat at the plate as Strasburg walked off the field. Strasburg kept his head down, his eyes toward the dugout, and never peaked at the scoreboard over his right shoulder, the one that contained only zeros.

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