“I just gave it everything I had,” Strasburg said later. “I’m pretty tired.”
The right-hander’s gem, combined with the offense awakening, keyed a 7-2 victory Tuesday that saved the team’s season. Strasburg can opt out of his contract after the season, and it looked as if he would have to decide soon after the first inning, when he allowed his only two runs of the night. Then he heard he was tipping pitches again, tweaked his delivery and mowed through the Astros in one of the most clutch playoff starts in recent memory. He became the first pitcher to go at least 8⅓ innings while allowing two or fewer runs in a World Series elimination game since Curt Schilling in 1993.
“That was tremendous,” Manager Dave Martinez said he told Strasburg. “You picked us all up, and we're going to Game 7 because of your performance.”
Strasburg had helped carry them to Game 6 in the first place. His three scoreless innings in his first career relief appearance during the National League wild-card game staved off elimination. So did his gutty, six-inning start in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The win Tuesday made him the first pitcher to go 5-0 in one postseason.
What Strasburg has left is unclear. He sounded pessimistic when asked whether he could come out of the bullpen in Game 7. It could be misdirection (he usually long-tosses the day after his starts), or it could be genuine (he finished with 104 or more pitches for the fourth straight outing). But he gave the pitcher’s signal for no more — “I emptied the tank tonight” — and emphasized the trust in his teammates, that “it’s going to take all 25 of us.”
If this was Strasburg’s last game as a National, then he will have ended his career here with about as much hype as he began it. That is a feat he and those around him long considered impossible. He came to the Nationals as the No. 1 draft pick in 2009, billed as a generational talent.
The intervening years — the disappointing ones that contained flashes of brilliance — now look like prologue to what could be a brilliant final act. This season, Strasburg reinvented himself, rededicated himself to conditioning and remained healthy all season. He stopped relying on the 100-mph fastball that once made him a can’t-miss prospect and has lost a few ticks since. He instead learned to pitch, leaning on the veteran’s tool of deception with his curveball and change-up.
It all built to Tuesday. The Nationals seized the lead in the first inning, but Strasburg coughed it up by allowing a double and a homer in the first. Pitching coach Paul Menhart suspected Strasburg was tipping his pitches, as he had earlier in the postseason, and told him to “butterfly” his glove to prevent it. Strasburg settled in and gave the team the stopgap it needed to catch up.
Strasburg was mocked earlier in his career for failing unless the conditions were perfect. He proved that was no longer the case again in Game 6, when he lost his command in the middle of the fourth — throwing 10 balls in 11 pitches and walking two batters — then charging back to strike out Carlos Correa. He did it again in the fifth, when he had runners on second and third with one out, when he seemed ready to give another lead back. He struck out José Altuve and got Michael Brantley to ground out — two of Houston’s best hitters, neutralized. He managed what few pitchers had this season against the Astros, perhaps the best testament to his greatness Tuesday: He got Houston hitters to chase.
Strasburg plowed through the rest of the lineup, retiring the last eight hitters before bench coach Chip Hale came to remove him in the ninth. He had, for his entire career, ridden shotgun to the star power of Bryce Harper or the intensity of Max Scherzer. But the Nationals no longer had Harper, and they needed him to get to Scherzer in Game 7. This moment was his, it was his alone, and he delivered.
“He doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “He doesn’t have anything to prove to us.”
As Strasburg left the mound, second baseman Asdrúbal Cabrera tapped the pitcher’s back with his glove. It was a physical acknowledgment of what his teammates told him in the dugout: You did your job. Strasburg considers there to be no higher compliment.
Strasburg afterward again confronted the aspect of stardom that long made him most uncomfortable. He stood in the middle of the clubhouse after the game, his back against a couch, his eyes looking out into a semicircle of swarming reporters. This used to faze him in the way pitching in front of 40,000 fans couldn’t.
He listened to the questions and answered in his low, steady cadence. He didn’t mind not getting the complete game because “that’s kind of a personal achievement.” He didn’t really notice what happened to get Martinez ejected from the game because he tried not to focus on anything other than his pitching. He didn’t think about the arc of his career.
But there, in all of what came before, he seemed to pause, to reveal more of himself than he normally would. He has, in his own words, “been under a microscope my whole career.” He credited his postseason performances to the attention he loathed as a younger pitcher.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think, without those things, it would’ve been a lot harder to focus on what I can control out there.”
The lights flicked off. The questions stopped. The cameras and microphones and bodies receded.
Strasburg, free now, resumed his beloved routine. He showered and dressed quickly, pulling on a light blue polo and gray jeans. He threw his towel in the hamper and, walking toward the clubhouse exit, glanced to his right. He glimpsed the TV in the corner. It was playing game highlights, and on the screen, he was throwing strike three by one of the seven Astros he fanned that night.
Strasburg didn’t stop. He didn’t smile. He didn’t even hesitate. He blinked, turned his attention back to the task at hand and walked out of the clubhouse.