The sniping, arguing and name-calling could last only so long. By Wednesday night, the news cycle had churned through every conceivable sound bite and opinion over a suddenly infamous reliever and the pine tar on his glove. The Washington Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays were left with what matters. “The game is going to take care of itself,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve got a game to play.”
And when the dust settles, only one team gets to hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg.
The sideshow subsided during the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Rays, pushed into the background by the real show, the 23-year-old who might be the one pitcher best suited to snap a four-game losing streak. Over seven brilliant innings, Strasburg struck out 10 and allowed five hits, lowering his ERA to 2.46 and increasing his league-leading strikeout total to 110 in 84 innings. He won his sixth consecutive start, and the Nationals improved to 12-2 when he pitches.
The Rays swung and missed 20 times against him, which tied a career high. Strasburg blazed his 111th pitch at 98 mph past Desmond Jennings, the final statement in another command performance that improved as the innings piled up and the batters grew more helpless.
“He’s a true No. 1,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “And he’s still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him.”
The scuttlebutt over Joel Peralta’s ejection Tuesday night and the subsequent war of words between Johnson and Rays Manager Joe Maddon obscured the Nationals’ real predicament. They had lost four consecutive games, and the Atlanta Braves’ victory Wednesday afternoon temporarily shaved their lead in the National League East to three games over two teams. When the Nationals needed it, Strasburg played the stopper role, a notion he casts aside.
“You let that bother you, you’re not going to last long,” Strasburg said. “It’s out of my control. I can only do as much as I can on the days I pitch. And then other than that, in the dugout pulling for everybody.”
The Nationals scored the only runs they needed in the first inning, jumping out to a three-run lead. Steve Lombardozzi, the rookie infielder turned left fielder, made a clutch sliding catch to preserve the Nationals’ lead in the seventh inning. Tyler Clippard notched his 10th save in 10 tries. Peralta, awaiting discipline from Major League Baseball, made a cameo appearance, retiring the only two hitters he faced in the bottom of the eighth.
The game, though, belonged to Strasburg. He stood in the middle of the diamond after his final warmup pitch, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blaring, the extra electricity that accompanies any Strasburg start buzzing through the park. As he climbed the mound to start the game, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson approached him. After the shenanigans of the past two days, “I thought he was going to check my glove,” Strasburg said.
“Stras was getting ready to undress,” Johnson said.
But Nelson only asked to see the ball. It had bounced into second base on catcher Jesus Flores’s warmup toss, and Nelson wanted to ensure it had not been scuffed. Nelson inspected the baseball. Satisfied, Nelson flipped the ball back.
Strasburg anticipated the glove check, but he never worried. “Why would it be dirty?” he said. “I don’t cheat.”
He struck out the first two batters of the game, Jennings and Carlos Pena. Jose Molina destroyed a fastball down the chute in the second inning, the sixth home run Strasburg has allowed this season. He found his first real trouble in the third, though.
With two outs, he walked Pena on a 3-2 pitch. Two singles followed, which pushed Pena to home plate. Strasburg needed 16 additional pitches to escape the third and the Rays sliced the Nationals’ lead in half, to 3-2.
The inning endangered how long Strasburg could pitch, but after the third he took full control. The Rays managed only two hits the rest of the game as Strasburg relied on his fastball, throwing it 96 and 97 mph with precise location, and sprinkling in his devastating change-up.
“Once I got over the troubles of just trying commit to the pitch and just trusting it, it changed the ballgame,” Strasburg said. “I started to see what they were trying to do against me. I felt better as I went along.”
Strasburg ran into one tough spot. With two outs in the sixth, Elliot Johnson hit a line drive into shallow right-center field. Bryce Harper had played Johnson in left-center, and Johnson alertly took advantage and took second base — he Harpered Harper.
Molina followed with a shallow fly into left field. Lombardozzi took two steps back at first, then realized his mistake and charged. “I was hauling my butt in there,” he said.
As Johnson rounded third, Lombardozzi dived, sliding on his stomach with his glove reaching out. He scooped the ball just before it hit the turf. Strasburg pumped his fist on the mound, and teammates waited by the dugout to slap gloves with Lombardozzi.
“I kind of turned that play into a Web gem,” Lombardozzi said.
At 99 pitches, Strasburg went out for the seventh and finished his start with the same authority he lorded over the Rays all night. He struck out pinch hitter Will Rhymes and Jennings to end a 1-2-3 inning.
“It’s not a conscious effort,” Strasburg said. “They kind of say when you see the finish line, you have a little more adrenaline going.”
The Nationals faced Chris Archer, a 23-year-old fresh from Class AAA Durham making his major league debut. Archer will remember most everything from the night, but he will try to forget the way it started.
Lombardozzi smoked a double into the right-center field gap. Harper followed with a scorched single to right-center, scoring Lombardozzi to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a groundball to shortstop. Harper stutter-stepped to let the ball pass him, then bolted for third base.
Johnson threw to third for what could have been a rally-killing out, but he had to rush and the ball deflected off Sean Rodriguez’s glove. Third base coach Bo Porter barrel-rolled out of the way of the ball, which rolled into the Rays’ dugout. Harper trotted home, Zimmerman moved to second and the Nationals led 2-0.
“That was actually a terrible read,” Harper said. “But I got lucky. I can’t complain.”