For the first time in his career, a start delayed by two years, Stephen Strasburg stood on the mound for a postseason game. The right-handed starter — shut down by the Washington Nationals before the 2012 playoffs because of his surgically repaired elbow — delivered a solid yet unspectacular performance Friday against the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
Among the reasons the Nationals fell to the Giants, 3-2, Strasburg ranks behind Giants veteran starter Jake Peavy’s strong pitching and the Nationals’ squandered late-inning scoring opportunities. Although Strasburg wasn’t at his best, he still managed to fire five innings, leaving the game in the sixth inning with the Nationals trailing, 2-0.
“Stras was good and he gave us a chance,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said. “Jake was a little bit better.”
Strasburg allowed two runs — one earned — on eight hits on 89 pitches. Intentional or not, the Giants hit the ball up the middle against Strasburg. All eight hits he allowed were singles; six were on the ground to center field. While sacrificing power, the Giants’ ability to make contact against Strasburg — even weak contact — proved productive.
“We didn’t really talk anything other than getting up there and having good at-bats,” Giants right field Hunter Pence said. “Working the count is something that just happens. You can’t really force it. If you sit there and force working the count and the pitcher’s throwing strikes, you’re going to be behind in counts and making quick outs. It just played out that way.”
The Giants took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning when they smacked three singles, two on the ground to center field. After Pence beat out a double play, he stole second base and scored on an RBI single to right by Brandon Belt.
“I don’t think the game plan is to go back up the middle,” Strasburg said. “That’s just where they hit it. It just seems like today they hit it where we weren’t. It was just one of those days.”
Strasburg was betrayed by his defense in the third inning. With Travis Ishikawa on first base after a single, Peavy laid down a sacrifice bunt. First baseman Adam LaRoche fielded the ball and threw to second. The throw was risky because Ishikawa got a good jump and, when LaRoche threw the ball, it looked like there was little chance of a play.
Umpires reviewed the play and ruled Ishikawa safe. Strasburg got Blanco to line out to center field and Denard Span’s strong throw to third kept Ishikawa at second base. But that all became moot when, with Joe Panik batting, Wilson Ramos was charged with a passed ball that allowed the runners to move up a base. Ramos said he was expected a fastball inside and got a pitch outside that he failed to catch.
“That happens in baseball sometimes,” Ramos said. “You have to control that.”
As a result, when Strasburg gave up a single by Panik to right field, it scored a run and gave the Giants a 1-0 lead. Strasburg, however, did well to minimize a situation that could have been worse. He got Buster Posey, the Giants’ best hitter, to hit into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“[I] went into the game expecting things like that to happen,” Strasburg said. “I felt like I was prepared for it. Just wanted to make the quality pitch when it mattered.”
Strasburg fought through his own command issues. He threw seven straight balls to start the fifth inning and hit Posey to put two runners on with one out. But he wriggled out of the inning with a strikeout and popup. After giving up two singles to start the sixth inning, Strasburg was pulled for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, who escaped the jam.
Strasburg’s outing began with electricity. His first pitch to center fielder Gregor Blanco was clocked at 97 mph. He then fired three straight 98-mph fastballs and got Blanco to hit the last one to center field for an out.
The Giants made solid contact with Strasburg’s fastball but hit three flyouts. Of Strasburg’s 11 first-inning pitches, nine were at 97 mph or harder. He finished off Posey to end the inning with a 91-mph change-up and then a 99-mph fastball.
Strasburg will likely be called upon again, on normal rest, if a Game 5 is necessary. But he isn’t thinking that far ahead. Two years ago, he didn’t get a chance to start. Now, he finally got that experience.
“I’m glad I was able to go out there and get my feet wet and I’m excited for the next opportunity,” he said.
More on the Nationals: