The Washington Nationals’ vaunted rotation, the backbone of the roster, is finally whole again. After a three-week stint on the disabled list with neck spasms, Stephen Strasburg returned rejuvenated. He no longer needed to push through any nicks and bruises. The time away allowed him to recover and reset. And on Tuesday, he looked as comfortable as he has all season while delivering five scoreless innings in a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.
“Sometimes you just have to take a step back to realize how bad it was,” Strasburg said. “Once I did, I was able to get back to what my body was supposed to feel like instead of just trying to mentally grind through it. I feel a lot stronger and a lot more consistent now.”
Strasburg’s return was delayed more than two hours by weather, but once he took the mound he looked strong, allowing only four hits while working out of minor jams. In collecting his first win in more than a month, he wore out one spot on the mound and showed improved mechanics while his fastball hummed at 97-98 mph.
“It looked like he was a little more confident out there,” center fielder Denard Span said. “For me, in the past, early in the season, I could tell what pitch was coming, to be honest with you from center field. Tonight, he looked a little different. Looked like he was keeping hitters off balance and catching me off guard what was coming out of his hand.”
Strasburg’s 11th start of the season was his first scoreless outing of 2015. He struck out six batters on 94 pitches, limited by a restricted pitch count in his first start back. It was baby steps, but it was the type of start the Nationals hope will build confidence after weeks of fighting his mechanics and body while putting up a career-worst 6.55 ERA before the disabled list stint.
“All this time I’ve been working on mechanics and working on fine-tuning things,” Strasburg said. “But when you go out there between the lines, you go out there and compete. I wasn’t going to think about mechanics at all. I was just going to give it everything I had.”
The Nationals, who took a 2 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East, helped him ease back. They gave him a 3-0 lead off Braves starter Alex Wood by the fourth inning. Anthony Rendon notched his first four-hit game of the season, while Wilson Ramos added three hits. Span and Michael A. Taylor had two hits apiece, each driving in key runs.
Strasburg’s return forced Tanner Roark back to the bullpen, and he contributed with two scoreless innings of relief. Matt Thornton allowed the only Braves run of the game — a solo home run by Cameron Maybin — before David Carpenter helped him get out of the eighth. Drew Storen notched his 21st save after pitching out of a bases loaded jam in the ninth.
Over the past four games, Nationals starters have a 0.32 ERA — only one run allowed in 28 1/3 innings — and 31 strikeouts. When the rotation is healthy and performing as expected, the team’s blueprint for success is pretty clear. Doug Fister returned last week after a month away with a forearm injury.
“We’re only as strong as our starting pitching,” Span said.
The surest sign that Strasburg is healthy is his velocity. His first three pitches against Atlanta were fastballs between 96 and 97. And his velocity held for the rest of the game. The other sign he was more at ease: his location, which was especially effective down in the strike zone.
“He looked like he was throwing the ball where he wanted to,” Manager Matt Williams said.
Strasburg’s offspeed pitches are still not back yet. He threw 27 curveballs, which curiously produced zero swings and misses, and only four change-ups. “It seems like every year, when the humidity starts to hit in the summer, it takes a little bit of time to trust the grip when you’re sweating a ton out there,” he said.
But Strasburg said it didn’t matter much: he wanted to rely heavily on his fastballs. He showed the ability to move it up and down. All six of Strasburg’s strikeouts came on the pitch, all at least 96 mph and up in the zone. During his time on the disabled list, he talked to teammates about his weaknesses and strengths, which included his fastball.
“I wanted [the Braves] to swing at the fastball,” he said. “They did do a good job of working up the pitch count and fighting pitches off. But that’s not something I’m going to go out there and worry about. I’m just gonna go out there and make them hit the fastball.”
While on the disabled list, Strasburg spent a lot of time working with pitching coach Steve McCatty on his mechanics and remaining consistent in his delivery to home plate. Injuries, starting with his sprained ankle in spring training, messed with his delivery. He watched old video of his pitching and did several drills with McCatty. Once healthy, he could pitch like freely. And for one night, at least, all those efforts seemed to work.
“Tonight was a really big step for him,” Williams said. “He had no discomfort, which is great. . . . He was aggressive. It helps when you feel good.”