By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; 12:14 AM
From the dominant beginning, through the ragged middle and to the curious end, Stephen Strasburg's start Sunday dashed any lingering concern about the fitness of his right shoulder or his pitching performance. He struck out seven, all swinging. Most of the three-run damage against him was self-inflicted, fallout from his own terrible fielding play. It wasn't the Arizona Diamondbacks who ultimately knocked him out of the game, but rather the banner-waving, security-eluding protesters.
Once Strasburg's short, convincing day ended, an ensemble cast of his Washington Nationals teammates secured a 5-3 victory at Nationals Park before 21,695, the smallest crowd to watch Strasburg pitch in the majors. Josh Willingham drilled his first home run in more than a month. Tyler Clippard pitched two scoreless innings and earned his team-leading ninth win, his first since June 4. Ian Desmond's go-ahead single to right in the seventh put the Nationals ahead. Ryan Zimmerman provided an insurance home run in the ninth, and Drew Storen slammed the door for his second career save.
Strasburg calmed any worry about his health and performance after returning from the disabled list, following the rockiest start of his nascent career with more typical dominance. Strasburg allowed one earned run - a solo homer by Adam LaRoche - in five innings on five hits, no walks and seven strikeouts. But he also gave up two unearned runs on his own error, an atrocious throw over Adam Dunn's head at first base.
"I felt a lot better today," Strasburg said. "You want to bounce back after a not-so-good outing. This was a new ballgame. I flushed all the stuff that happened before. I wanted to go out there and do my thing."
The biggest difference for Strasburg from his previous start to this one may have been his pitch selection, sprinkled with more sinkers and change-ups. He threw only one change-up in his last start. On Sunday, he threw 16. The Diamondbacks featured five left-handers in their lineup compared to one for the Florida Marlins. But Strasburg said the increased changes owed more to his conviction than the complexion of the opposing lineup.
"I really have to get that going," Strasburg said. "It's a good pitch. Batters have had a tough time handling it all year. I really need to trust my stuff."
On Tuesday, Strasburg said he had "no idea" where his pitches were going. On Sunday, he threw three balls to only one batter and all seven of his strikeouts came on swings. The Nationals assumed Strasburg would respond well - "I know he's going to go out there and throw bullets," Manager Jim Riggleman said before the game.
They could not have envisioned one dreadful throw nearly undoing his strong start. In the second inning, LaRoche led off with a missile to right, crushing Strasburg's 2-0, 97-mph fastball over the scoreboard. Strasburg struck out Miguel Montero and allowed Mark Reynolds a soft single. Stephen Drew dribbled a ball toward first base, only about 45 feet from home plate.
Strasburg picked up the ball with his bare hand and tossed to Dunn. Only Strasburg, from maybe 35 feet away, threw it over Dunn's out-stretched right arm, which is hard to do. The ball trickled to the fence in foul territory, allowing Reynolds to score and Drew to motor to third. Drew scored a batter later, when Gerardo Parra hit a sacrifice fly.
"Got a little sped-up," Strasburg said. "It just sailed on me. Pretty much bad fundamentals all the way around. I know what I did wrong, and if I make that play again I know what I'm going to do right."
Oddly, Strasburg's final act came at the plate and not on the mound. Strasburg needed 85 pitches in the first five innings. Riggleman let Strasburg hit to lead off the inning, assuming Strasburg could throw about a dozen more pitches in the sixth.
But after Strasburg grounded out to shortstop, two fans ran into the outfield as others unfurled a large banner high in center field protesting Major League Baseball holding the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona in the wake of new immigration legislation. Two more fans ran on the field holding a banner of their own before security confiscated the banner.
The delay took five minutes, long enough for Riggleman to worry about the effects on Strasburg's arm.
"We're in that gray area, 85 pitches," Riggleman said. "I just was undecided if I wanted him to go back out there, anyway. Once that stuff was going on, I decided I'm not going to throw him back out there."
Clippard tossed two scoreless innings, yielding only a single and striking out three. Desmond handled the rest. Adam Kennedy led off the seventh with a single and moved to second on Alberto Gonzalez's sacrifice bunt. Desmond entered the game hitting .355 since July 27, relying on a more relaxed approach. With two outs, he scalded a one-hopper to right field. Justin Upton bobbled the ball, allowing Kennedy to glide home with the go-ahead run.
"With runners in scoring position," Desmond said, "it's time to just be aggressive."
Willingham had ensured Strasburg, at the very least, would not suffer his fourth loss. When he came to bat in the fourth inning, having already drilled a double and scored a run on his gimpy left knee, Willingham had been stuck on 15 home runs since July 2, a span of 33 games and 112 at-bats without a homer.
"You try to not to think about it," Willingham said. "I mean, I knew it had been a long time since I hit a home run. You kind of wonder if you can still hit one."
Zimmerman stood on first base. With the Nationals down two, Willingham left no doubt, blasting Barry Enright's slider deep into the left field stands. The Nationals had tied the game. Willingham feels pain in his knee only when he runs, but jogging around the bases didn't feel so bad. "I'd like to try that a few more times," he said.