By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; D01
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."
Early on, Strasburg announced he does not meet challenges; he is the challenge. In the first inning, Orlando Cabrera, the second batter of the game, fell flat on his backside buckling at a curveball that nearly darted back into the strike zone.
The next batter, Votto, the potential National League MVP, took a righteous hack at a 91-mph change-up that bounced some four feet in front of home plate for strike two. Three pitches later, the count 2-2, Strasburg threw an 82-mph curveball. Votto made an awkward half-swing, stopping the bat parallel to the ground as if trying to delicately show Strasburg the label. That was strike three.
The Reds did not manage their first hit until Brandon Phillips laced a high-and-outside fastball off the right-center field fence for a triple in the third inning. Cabrera followed by lashing a 2-2, hanging curveball to left, giving the Reds a one-run lead.
The final rally against Strasburg materialized just as quickly as the first. He entered the sixth having thrown 80 pitches, and when Votto singled it became clear it would be his last inning. With two outs, Bruce singled to center, putting two men on with Strasburg at 92 pitches. Pitching coach Steve McCatty met Strasburg at the mound -- Miguel Cairo would be his final batter.
Strasburg threw a wild pitch, putting runners on second and third. Here came Manager Jim Riggleman's regret from the night. He tried to get Strasburg's attention and tell him to pitch from the windup. Strasburg did not hear him, and he surrendered a two-run single on a hanging curveball. When Riggleman came to pull him, he told Strasburg what he wanted him to do. "He brought up a good point," Strasburg said.
And then Strasburg walked off the field, toward the fan with something to say. He dismissed him with the same ruthless disdain he unleashes upon opposing hitters. Strasburg had not been at his best, but his teammates ensured he did not need to be.
"Bottom line," Strasburg said, "we got the win."