MIAMI — Stephen Strasburg’s final pitch hummed in at 94 mph, past Rosell Herrera’s waving bat and into Kurt Suzuki’s waiting catcher’s mitt. Herrera dropped his head in frustration and stared into the dirt. Strasburg watched for a moment, skipped once and, eyes fixed straight ahead, headed toward the visitors’ dugout with the afternoon resting on his fingertips.
That happened a lot Sunday at Marlins Park, where the Washington Nationals rode Strasburg to a 5-0 win over the Miami Marlins. The 30-year-old right-hander stuffed 11 strikeouts into eight scoreless innings. He gave up just two hits. He threw 104 pitches and, while doing so, lifted a team that had dropped back-to-back games to a club it should have picked on all weekend.
That was the effect of Washington’s best pitching performance of the season, from one of the three arms it will lean on into the fall. Strasburg’s effort was backed by two home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and a third crushed by Brian Dozier. And the Nationals, everything considered, are 10-10 as they head to Denver for a three-game set with the Colorado Rockies starting Monday.
“Outstanding,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Strasburg. “That’s the word to describe what he did today. Unbelievable pick-me-up.”
The first out of the second looked like any other, with a Miguel Rojas grounder skipping toward Wilmer Difo at short. But that ball carried a bit of history as it nestled into Zimmerman’s glove ahead of Rojas. It made Strasburg the Nationals’ all-time leader in innings pitched with 1,253⅔ . He passed Gio Gonzalez, who departed in a trade this past August, and that was a reminder of just how long Strasburg has been around.
Washington has needed him in many games such as this, to steady momentum, to halt a skid, to pitch into the late innings and ease pressure off a struggling bullpen. The Nationals couldn’t get swept by the rebuilding Marlins (6-16). They were a player short — with a 24-man roster and a three-man bench — as Anthony Rendon’s left elbow contusion was evaluated further. They had high expectations for Strasburg after his previous start, an April 16 loss to the San Francisco Giants, unwound in the fifth. And Strasburg delivered with sequences built on his biting curveball. He threw it 45 times and got 12 swinging strikes, six called and four foul balls.
“I have a lot of trust in my curveball. I get myself in trouble when I don’t go to it enough,” Strasburg said after his second win of the year. “It really kind of sets up my other pitches and keeps them from ambushing as much off my fastball early in the count.”
He may have received some help early as a shadow crept over the first base line and settled halfway between the mound and home plate. The Marlins have opened their retractable roof more this season, and they did again Sunday to let in the 78-degree air and a slight breeze. But that created a cone of shade that moved across the diamond as the game progressed. Strasburg’s pitches started under the midday sun and, as they neared the plate, went from white to a dull gray. They also spun and broke and tailed, depending on what he threw, and the strikeouts added up fast.
That led Strasburg to carve through the Marlins’ lineup for the first four innings. Miami starter Trevor Richards had done the same until, in the fourth, Zimmerman lifted his change-up beyond the left field wall. Zimmerman brought a season-long slump into the game — he was hitting .182 in 65 plate appearances. But he battled with Richards for eight pitches, ran the count full and stalked a low pitch for his second homer of the season.
Then the shadow passed the mound and became a bit less of a factor. Then Strasburg kept dominating. Then hitters expressed frustration with the open roof following the game.
“It’s an enormous factor. It’s awful. I mean, I don’t understand why you would play a game like that if you don’t have to,” Zimmerman said before dipping into his sarcasm. “But I hope the fans enjoyed the open-air experience. It was great for us. Awesome.”
Strasburg struck out the side in the fifth and Curtis Granderson to start the sixth, giving him 41 career games with 10 or more strikeouts. His fastball stayed in the mid-90s for the later innings, and his off-speed pitches remained sharp. And he got incremental run support on top of Zimmerman’s home run, first on a Howie Kendrick sacrifice fly in the sixth and then a solo blast from Dozier in the seventh.
That three-run cushion was plenty big enough, and it grew more in the ninth with Zimmerman’s second homer and Difo’s single that scored Suzuki. The Nationals have tried to right their bullpen in many ways this year — crossing their fingers, shifting roles, shuttling in pitchers from Class AAA Fresno to see whether anyone sticks. Yet this was a new attempt to smooth a problem that has plagued them since Opening Day.
Strasburg hung eight zeros on the scoreboard and delivered the ball directly to the ninth in a tight game turned lopsided. Kyle Barraclough, coming off a rare two days of rest, got two quick outs and then issued two walks. Closer Sean Doolittle came in and finished it off. It’s not a sustainable formula. It won’t be an option most games. But it came right as the Nationals needed it to, and they made it count.
“It’s huge,” Martinez said of Strasburg, finding another word to pair with outstanding. Neither was an overstatement.