NEW YORK — After Stephen Strasburg’s previous start, when the Washington Nationals had blown what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, Manager Davey Johnson had pointed words for his 24-year-old ace. Johnson said Strasburg wasted pitches. He said he needed more trust in his stuff. He said, essentially, that Strasburg needed to grasp how great he is.
Wednesday afternoon, Strasburg climbed the mound at Citi Field and delivered a start beyond reproach. As the Nationals finished their three-game disassembling of the reeling New York Mets, Strasburg led them to a 5-2 victory with perhaps his finest start of the season, a seven-inning, 11-strikeout masterwork. Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche each ripped a home run, but Strasburg owned the game.
“That is the Strasburg I’ve known for a long time,” Johnson said. “That’s him. That’s what he does.”
The Nationals maintained their 41 / 2-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and used their sweep of the Mets to virtually knock them out, dropping them 111 / 2 games back. With five straight wins, the Nationals surged to 19 games over .500 at 58-39, matching the high-water mark since baseball returned to Washington. They have the best record in the National League, and their offense is playing better now than at any point this season.
“We know we’re good,” Morse said. “That’s what it comes down to. Why not play with a little confidence, a little swagger?”
Strasburg allowed one run on four hits and zero walks. He whisked through seven efficient innings in 94 pitches despite all those strikeouts, which pushed his MLB-leading total to 151. The Mets hit six balls out of the infield. Strasburg made one mistake, a first-pitch fastball that Ike Davis blasted into the right field seats for a home run, but otherwise cruised.
“It took a little while to wake up,” Strasburg said. “But once I got out there and got up in the first inning with the adrenaline going, it just started to click.”
In his last start, the Nationals squandered a nine-run lead against the Atlanta Braves after Strasburg allowed four runs in the sixth inning. He needed 103 pitches before leaving with one out in the sixth. Johnson wanted him to stop picking at the edges of the strike zone and attack hitters, to force batters to hit his raw stuff.
As Johnson watched Strasburg burst into the majors, he lamented his approach. Johnson thought Strasburg gave in to the hype attending his arrival and tried to overwhelm batters. He has repeatedly urged Strasburg to throw under control and, like he did Wednesday, throw in the 95-97 mph range rather than triple digits.
“He’s going to get his strikeouts not trying to strike people out,” Johnson said. “If he tries to make them hit it, he’s going to strike them out.”
Wednesday, Strasburg relied on precise location with his fastball and an onslaught of strikes, just as pitching coach Steve McCatty urges. Strasburg threw 67 fastballs, and 63 of his 94 pitches were strikes.
“It was just attack the strike zone and don’t nibble,” Strasburg said. “Just go out there and make them put the ball in play. The good pitchers can get through seven in under 100 pitches. So that was definitely a goal.”
He pitched with his usual icy disdain for opposing hitters, with surgical detachment. Strasburg struck out the side in the third inning. He struck out David Wright three times — once looking at a fastball, once trying to check his swing on a change-up in the dirt and once frozen by a curveball. He commanded his fastball with such precision that three times, the Mets looked at one on the corner for strike three.
“I caught him before. It was really good,” rookie catcher Sandy Leon said. “It was perfect today.”
Strasburg has more ability than any pitcher in the Nationals’ vaunted rotation, and perhaps as much as any starter in the league. “It’s a striking resemblance to [Justin] Verlander,” the current holder of the Cy Young and MVP awards in the American League, reliever Drew Storen said.
Still, Strasburg remains a 24-year-old with 37 career starts. He pitched half a season in 2010 and another month in 2011.
“He’s still learning how to pitch in this league,” Johnson said. “He’s got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity. But he’s still a work in progress. . . . We take it for granted that he’s been around here five years. A lot of times, it takes two or three years for a young pitcher to know how the league is going to react to his stuff.”
Strasburg’s primary adjustment has been coming to understand his powers. He can dominate the best hitters on the planet better by not overexerting himself, by using less effort instead of more. It has been a hard notion for him to embrace.
“Once the lights are on and you’re facing another team, you want to go out there and really make your stuff really dirty,” Strasburg said. “I think when I take a step back and relax and let it happen instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot.
“There’s going to be games where your stuff isn’t necessarily working from the first pitch on. So that’s where you’ve got to keep chucking it and really not trying to do more. I think that’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few starts. It doesn’t really work to my advantage when I try and get back by overdoing it a little bit, trying to throw harder or make pitches move more.”
Wednesday, Strasburg plowed through the Mets. After seven innings, Johnson considered sending Strasburg to pitch the eighth inning for the first time in his career. “But this is kind of a strange year,” Johnson said. Strasburg, of course, will be shut down once he reaches his yet-to-be-determined innings limit.
Strasburg is at 1171 / 3 innings, and he has about nine or 10 starts left before he becomes a spectator. To conserve innings, Johnson has been pulling him early, even when Strasburg pitches just how he wants him to. “When he does that, he’s capable of going nine innings,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot left in the tank there today, I’ll tell you that.”
At some point, Strasburg’s season will end. The Nationals will have to wait until next season for more days like Wednesday, when the sun is shining, the air is cool, the opposing hitters are trudging back to the dugout, the Nationals are in first and Strasburg is close to perfect.