The doubts can rest. The worries can take the week off. Stephen Strasburg will hear no questions about his prized, reconstructed right elbow, at least not for the next five days. He answered them all Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park against the Atlanta Braves with seven of the most brilliant innings he has pitched for the Washington Nationals, a testament to what the 23-year-old is capable of and the fitness of his arm.
For the first time in 28 career starts, Strasburg fired seven scoreless innings, leading the Nationals to a 2-0 victory, snapping their three-game skid and giving them six straight wins over Atlanta dating from last year. Catcher Jesus Flores drilled a solo home run, Xavier Nady added a pinch-hit, RBI double and Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard closed it out. But the game belonged to Strasburg, who walked none, allowed four hits and struck out nine, including the final batter he faced, Freddie Freeman, with a 98-mph fastball on his 90th pitch.
“The way he finished off, he blew the guy away, I said, ‘He’s back,’ ” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I don’t think he ever left.”
Strasburg had not recorded an out past the fifth inning in any of his previous three starts, a span that raised his ERA from 1.64 to 2.64. In his last start, also against Atlanta, he allowed four runs in five innings while issuing four walks, the second most of his career.
“The last couple starts, he’s been a little shaky,” Flores said. “But today, when I watched him in the bullpen, he looked really different — very confident. That’s what he did today.”
The only team to beat Strasburg twice was the Braves, against whom Strasburg had a 5.28 ERA. He shredded that history. Strasburg threw 59 strikes in only 90 pitches. He chucked several fastballs at 99 mph. The Braves took awkward flails at his off-speed pitches. He faced two batters over the minimum, allowed one batter past second base and took only two counts to three balls. Strasburg emptied both barrels.
“I think I just expected a little bit too much out of myself and I was kind of getting away from what I was trying to do and what I want to do out there,” Strasburg said. “So today was huge for me, to be able to go out there and keep it simple.”
Because of a scheduled day off and Friday’s rainout, Strasburg took the mound six days after his last start. The extra rest made a difference from the beginning. He struck out the first four batters he faced and retired the first eight.
Strasburg also extracted a measure of revenge against his nemesis. Dan Uggla entered the game 6 for 8 against Strasburg with two home runs, a double and two walks. Just last Saturday, Uggla crushed a game-tying, two-run homer off Strasburg to dead center at Turner Field.
This time, Strasburg turned the tables. He struck Uggla out in their first meeting by twirling a change-up and a curveball after falling behind, 2-1. Uggla struck out in his next at-bat on three off-speed pitches, a first-pitch curveball and two feeble swings at change-ups.
“It was obvious today that he wasn’t going to give him anything to hit from jump street,” Johnson said. “I was reading lips on Uggla. I don’t want to tell you what I heard him say. It wasn’t pretty when he faced him.”
Uggla had one more chance. Brian McCann led off the seventh with a bloop single to left field, the Braves’ fourth base runner all game. Uggla followed. He grounded a 96-mph fastball to shortstop, and Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa turned a textbook 6-4-3 double play. Strasburg struck out Freeman to end the inning and jogged off the mound.
Johnson was waiting for him on the dugout steps with a handshake, the signal his start had ended. Strasburg had never in his career thrown a pitch past the seventh inning, but now he was rolling, and he had thrown only 90 pitches, a mark he had already matched or exceeded seven times this season.
“I felt like I was getting stronger as the game went on,” Strasburg said.
Johnson, though, had made up his mind. The Nationals are limiting Strasburg’s innings this season to roughly 165. With Burnett and Clippard rested, Johnson saw an opportunity to preserve one for later this season.
“I know he has it in him,” Johnson said. “With the situation this year on innings, I’ve been taking innings away from him. Don’t tell him I said that. But I’ve been going one short with him.”
And so, Johnson had an easy decision in the bottom of the seventh. The Nationals (30-21) led 1-0 thanks to Flores’s home run, which came off Braves starter Brandon Beachy, the majors’ ERA leader at 1.87. With one out, both Espinosa and Flores drew walks, which brought up Strasburg’s spot in the order.
After Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez summoned Jonny Venters to face pinch hitter Roger Bernadina, Johnson countered with Nady, one of the reserves counted on to replace the injured Chad Tracy, the Nationals’ best pinch hitter.
Nady showed another sign of ditching his early-season slump, drilling a double into the right field corner. Espinosa trotted home to give the Nationals a two-run cushion as Flores, oddly, move up only one base after he had been tagging up.
“Losing Tracy, the way he was swinging the bat, he’s tough to replace,” said Nady, who is 4 for 9 as a pinch-hitter. “I feel like with our group on the bench, we’re capable.”
In his first game this season, Michael Morse went 0 for 4 with a groundout to shortstop all four plate appearances. As Morse walked to the batter’s box for the first time, the sellout crowd of 41,042 showered him with a standing ovation, and the speakers blared his familiar walk-up music, A-ha’s “Take On Me.”
“That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve had happen,” Morse said. “That gave me goosebumps.”
Strasburg handled the rest. Often his own harshest critic, Strasburg had stewed over his last three starts. After Saturday’s performance, he will have little reason for critique. “We can live with him now for four or five days,” Johnson said.