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How Stephen Strasburg became virtually unhittable at the perfect time for the Nationals

Following a resurgent year, Stephen Strasburg represents the Nationals' best hope in Game 5. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

A younger Stephen Strasburg would have reverted to the fastball. The Washington Nationals right-hander was struggling with curveball command in the fifth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series when he got down in the count against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Max Muncy. Strasburg needed to be careful; his team clung to a three-run lead in a must-win game, and Muncy is one of the most dangerous hitters in this NLDS. But Strasburg had built the most dominant and durable season of his career on a radical new approach — using his curveball more and his fastball less — so he stuck with it.

The right-hander put his next pitch, another curveball, at the bottom of the strike zone to even the count. He battled mostly with curveballs until the seventh pitch, when he froze Muncy on a fastball up and away for strike three.

This approach embodied Strasburg’s outing — he threw a next-pitch curveball nine of the 14 times he trailed a Dodgers hitter — as well as the recent resurgence of his career. The much-hyped No. 1 draft pick in 2009 once heavily relied on velocity, but it contributed to and diminished in part because of lingering injury issues. Slowly, he tweaked his approach to become a savvy veteran and, this season, one of baseball’s best pitchers.

“There comes a point in everybody's career where you don't have the fastball that you can just blow by guys all the time,” Strasburg said. “You have to learn how to pitch a little bit more.”

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The Nationals need Strasburg to replicate that dominance in Wednesday’s do-or-die Game 5 in Los Angeles. They need Strasburg to extend his postseason brilliance; his 0.64 career ERA in the playoffs is the lowest in major league history for anyone with four or more starts. He must figure out how to do so despite facing a quick turnaround against one of baseball’s best lineups, one preparing for his curveball. Strasburg threw it just more than a third of the time in Game 2, slightly more than he did on the season, and the usage surprised Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who lamented, “We just didn’t see it well.”

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez marveled this season at the maturation of his starter. He first saw Strasburg come into the majors as a thrower rather than a pitcher, a player who used his fastball more than half the time and his curveball mainly in 0-2 counts, when he would throw it in the dirt and hope the batter would swing. The 31-year-old now spins it in any count and finds the strike zone. Pitching coach Paul Menhart, a few days before this series started, pointed out something that might render the Dodgers’ preparation for more curveballs moot.

“It’s got such late movement and bite and sharpness to it [that] it’s very difficult to hit, even if you know it’s coming,” Menhart said. He added that Strasburg has always had this curveball — “It was just a matter of using it more.”

Strasburg was ready to hear that suggestion in the offseason. Two injuries had sidelined the star for a month each and, when healthy, his 2018 numbers were as bad as they had been during his decade in the majors (3.74 ERA, 130 innings). The fastball he once relied on was getting crushed (he allowed an .890 on-base-plus-slugging percentage on the pitch). The struggles were amplified because Strasburg was two seasons removed from signing a seven-year, $175 million contract extension.

Three things keyed Strasburg’s transformation. The first was that he had returned from his second stint on the injured list last August with diminished velocity and, instead of pushing through it, he decided to hone his off-speed pitches. The second was that he saw the game evolving: Pitchers couldn’t survive on fastballs anymore because hitters swung more often at the first pitch as they synced up to relievers around the league throwing in the upper 90s. Finally, he and the team understood that he didn’t have upper-90s velocity anymore anyway; his stuff could no longer support a fastball-heavy approach.

The Nationals dug into the analytics. The numbers suggested his fastball could still be effective at 93 to 96 mph if he used his curveball and change-up more often. The contrast would help the fastball “play up,” Menhart explained. If Strasburg could locate his breaking pitches, as well as maintain his fastball velocity, he would unlock a secret to retiring hitters in this era of offense. He would prevent batters from zeroing in on one or two pitches.

“You got doubt,” Menhart said of the batter’s perspective. “All we’re trying to do is put doubt in guys’ heads at the plate.”

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The curveball headlined Strasburg’s major pitch-mix revamp. He bumped the curveball from about 20 percent usage last year to about 31 percent, one of the largest annual fluctuations of any pitch in his career. Strasburg dropped his fastball usage from 45 percent to about 28 percent and almost completely ditched his slider. He maintained the change-up (about 20 percent) and nudged up the sinker (from 9 to 20 percent).

The routine followed. Strasburg tweaked his approach to his days between starts and, though he’s guarded about specifics, it involved the running, video study, weight work and side sessions typical for starting pitchers. He attributed the biggest change to managing throwing between starts and listening to his body to endure the length of a season. Menhart called the strategy “extremely regimented,” Martinez dubbed the pitcher “a beast this year,” and the coaches credited the routine as a key part of his success.

Strasburg’s emergence came a season after the departure of Bryce Harper, the fellow former No. 1 draft pick, the much-hyped generational talent, the star who had overshadowed Strasburg for most of his career. Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years and $330 million, at the time the largest contract in baseball history, but what the team has done without him is not lost on Strasburg.

“Obviously, we lost a major part of the franchise in the offseason, but I think it just showed the makeup that we have as an organization,” he said. “To get back here … you appreciate it a lot more, especially when you played a little bit longer. You start to realize how hard it is to get there. All you can really do is just give it everything you have.”

And Strasburg did this season, having made every start and sporting some of the best numbers of his career (3.32 ERA, National League-leading 209 innings). A fan base that hasn’t always celebrated the withdrawn Strasburg clamored for him to start the wild-card game ahead of beloved but weakened Max Scherzer. He didn’t start but entered for his first career relief appearance and threw three crucial scoreless innings — a direct reply to an old nickname, “The Orchid,” that accused him of only performing well under perfect conditions.

Strasburg now has a chance to cement his legacy on the biggest stage in Nationals history, to push the team where it has never gone, to deliver this city its first trip to the NL Championship Series. Strasburg understands high expectations — he was once billed as the pitcher of his generation — and he has grown more comfortable with them. He no longer thinks about his defining postseason moment, when the Nationals held him out of the 2012 playoffs because he had reached his innings limit following Tommy John surgery in 2010.

“Be in the moment,” Strasburg said of his mind-set. “Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen, it takes your focus away from what your job is.”

The unspoken tension of this season is that, whenever it ends, Strasburg could decide to become a free agent again; he has an opt-out clause in his contract. But he has kept whatever thoughts he has to himself and has remained focused on the big game. He has started them before. He staved off elimination in 2017. But he has never started one like this, never a Game 5 — a dark phrase around Washington because, of the four NLDS defeats this franchise has suffered since 2012, three have come in Game 5. He understands the stakes as well as anyone, that since baseball returned to the District, it has been defined by near misses.

Strasburg could help change that. He could help redefine the tone of “Game 5.” He could help change the conversation in this city, both around the Nationals and himself, from what could have been to what is.

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