Stephen Strasburg gets help from Washington Nationals' offense to beat Cincinnati Reds

Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg improves to 5-2 in his rookie season with a victory over the Reds in Cincinnati on July 21.
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

CINCINNATI -- His manager asked for the ball, Adam Dunn slapped him on the back and Stephen Strasburg trudged toward the Washington Nationals' dugout. Scattered boos cascaded, and one fan sitting behind the dugout, close enough for Strasburg to hear, dared heckle him. Strasburg is reserved and polite, but his teammates have learned those manners extend only outside the confines of the baseball diamond. Strasburg peeked up and yelled, "Look at the scoreboard!"

"I was like, 'Yeah, tell 'em Stras!' " Nationals outfielder Willie Harris said. "When we see stuff like that, it shows he's getting comfortable. He's believing in himself."

The performance Strasburg summoned Wednesday night in an 8-5 Nationals victory did not rank among his best, which says less about his performance Wednesday night than about his best. He hung a couple of curveballs the Cincinnati Reds didn't miss. He allowed three earned runs, matching his season high. His jersey, weighted down by humidity, kept falling off, and he had to change into a new one. "It was like five extra pounds of sweat," Strasburg said.

He also struck out seven batters, made the Reds swing and miss nine times and sent one batter collapsing to the ground with a curveball that nearly broke over the plate.

As Strasburg mixed typical dominance with rare normalcy, his teammates bulwarked him with an offensive outburst -- Strasburg could bark at any Great American Ball Park fan he wanted to because the Nationals scored seven runs before he left. Before 40,201 -- including Pete Rose, who sat right behind home plate -- Strasburg exited with two outs in the sixth after allowing three earned runs on seven hits and a walk.

"I was able to throw some good pitches, and those are the ones that I'm going to remember," Strasburg said. "I'm really just going to flush the ones that I hung up there, because I know next time around I'm not going to make those mistakes."

The Nationals' offense, which limped into Cincinnati following consecutive shutouts in Florida, broke out with nine hits, most from unlikely sources. Willie Harris and Cristian Guzmán each blasted home runs, Guzmán's giving the Nationals the lead in the fifth and Harris's providing insurance in the ninth. The Nationals scored four in the fourth on two-RBI singles by Ian Desmond and Nyjer Morgan. Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham went 2 for 12 combined, and the Nationals still scored eight runs for the second time since June 15.

"We can hit," Guzmán said. "We know we can hit. There's nine players on the field. One day they do it, one day we do it. I hope one of those comes when everybody does it together."

Said Harris: "When Strasburg pitches, we all elevate our game. We have to. He's our horse. We know we have to score four runs for him. Six-run lead, it's pretty much over."

Strasburg's ERA actually went up to 2.32, still sixth in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings, one spot ahead of Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jiménez, who boasts a 15-1 record. Strasburg's strikeout rate per nine innings actually went down, to 12.4, still the best in the majors by more than two full strikeouts.

Strasburg, on paper, faced his stiffest challenge yet against the Reds. They lead the National League in runs and they play inside a bandbox derisively nicknamed Great American Small Park. Two of their most dangerous hitters, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, bat left-handed, and Strasburg had been closer to mortal against lefties than righties. The cozy dimensions of the park, certainly, did not faze him.

"You should have seen some of the fields I was playing at in college," Strasburg said. "Playing a mile up on a field that's smaller than this. As long as you execute pitches, it doesn't matter."

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