CHICAGO — Stephen Strasburg walked off the Wrigley Field mound for the last time Thursday afternoon, seven magnificent innings behind him, and stayed in the dugout. Icing his shoulder could wait. One year ago, Strasburg watched the Washington Nationals play opening day on television in Florida, “kind of on your own separate island,” he said. Now, he huddled next to teammates, watching them scrap together a rally, the game in the balance with every pitch.
“That’s what I love about this game,” Strasburg said later.
After Strasburg allowed one run over seven dominant innings, the Nationals rallied to beat the Chicago Cubs, 2-1, by scoring one run in the eighth and another in the ninth. The Nationals tied the score when Jayson Werth drew a walk off Kerry Wood with the bases loaded in the eighth, and they took the lead in the ninth when Ian Desmond, who produced three of the Nationals’ four hits, smacked an RBI single to right. They held on only after Ryan Zimmerman threw out a runner at the plate in the ninth, allowing Brad Lidge to record a save in his first Nationals appearance.
These Nationals may be leaving behind their dismal past, but for one day they maintained their uncanny knack for making things hard on themselves. They needed a double by Chad Tracy, a pinch hitter who played in Japan last season, to spark their game-winning rally. And they needed to overcome an offense that went 26 consecutive batters without a hit. But they left opening day smiling, no one more than Strasburg.
“That’s what baseball is all about,” Strasburg said. “As a player, you want to be put in those situations. Watching from the dugout, you almost feel like you’re in the box there with them.”
Strasburg matched the longest outing of his career, mowing through seven innings with only 82 pitches. He allowed five hits, all singles, only three of which left the infield, and struck out five. He threw 95 mph fastballs that bored in on hitters’ cold hands and curveballs that had them ducking out of the way. After he broke Ryan Dempster’s bat for the second time, Dempster walked up to him and said, “Another one? Are you kidding me?”
Strasburg yielded his only run in the fourth inning, when Marlon Byrd hooked an RBI single to left. He faced the minimum number of batters from there, striking out four of the next six he faced, including Starlin Castro on a 98 mph heater in the sixth, the fastest pitch he threw all game.
“He’s got that fastball that gets on you,” Desmond said. “You can’t take anything for granted. And then he throws that curveball, it’s kind of unfair. There’s no doubt about it. He’s an ace.”
During batting practice, pitching coach Steve McCatty chatted with Strasburg. He wanted him to control his emotions. It was his first opening day start, McCatty reminded him, but it would not be the last. “Don’t get too excited,” McCatty said. “There are probably going to be a lot of ’em.”
“He can take a deep breath now,” Lidge said. “He knows that he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
But he almost took the loss. Desmond started the game with a single off Dempster, a flare to right. The Nationals went another 26 batters without their second hit. The wind whipped in off Lake Michigan and knocked down deep flies, including a blast to left by Zimmerman. (“That one should have been in the apartments,” he said.)
With the elements and Dempster’s splitter holding them down, the Nationals limped into the eighth trailing 1-0, one hit on the board. With one out, Desmond rolled through the right side, snapping Dempster’s string of 12 consecutive batters retired.
Dempster struck out the next batter he faced, Danny Espinosa, giving him 10 in 72 / 3 innings. He had thrown 108 pitches, and Cubs Manager Dale Sveum, in his first game with the Cubs, decided that was enough. He summoned Wood to face Zimmerman.
After Desmond stole second, Wood walked Zimmerman. Up came Adam LaRoche, who had struck out three times in three at-bats, twice with two men in scoring position. “I just couldn’t pick up the ball,” LaRoche said. He evened the count at 2-2 and told himself not to try to do too much, as he had earlier. He fouled off three straight pitches to stay alive, then took two balls to load the bases.
Werth, the high-priced free agent trying to prove last year was a fluke, walked to the plate 0 for 3, having stranded five runners. In seven at-bats against Wood, he had struck out four times and never reached base. He looked at strike one and then got the slider he wanted, but he fouled it away.
Promptly, in the biggest moment of the game, Werth had fallen behind, 0-2. But he trusts his batting eye, and he took a close pitch 0-2. Wood was rattled. He almost hit Werth with the 2-2 pitch. Werth took a ball at his ankles to force in the run.
“The last pitch came out of his hand funny,” Werth said. “So that made that easy.”
The Nationals managed another improbable rally with two outs in the ninth. Tracy, one of the last players to make the roster, smoked a double to right field off Carlos Marmol. Desmond walked to the plate, already with two hits. He expected a slider, focusing on staying on top of the ball.
“Hitting the ball in the air today was pretty useless,” Desmond said. “I just wanted to hit the hardest groundball I could.”
Desmond took a fastball, then got his slider and lined it into right field. Pinch runner Brett Carroll sprinted home, without a throw. The Nationals’ dugout exploded.
“If you don’t like that ballgame, you don’t like baseball,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Every pitch meant something.”
“It seemed like a playoff game,” LaRoche said.
After Lidge survived the ninth, the Nationals lined up and shook hands in shallow right field, celebrating a hard-earned victory, the first of many, they believe. “A lot can happen,” Strasburg said. “It’s Game 1 of 162-plus games.”
The Nationals have never considered playing past 162 before. But then, they had not sent a pitcher to the mound on opening day like Strasburg, the kind of pitcher who makes the hope of opening day seem so very real.
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