With so much ridiculous noise surrounding the Washington Nationals’ wise decision to shut down pitcher Stephen Strasburg shortly, it’s easy to forget how much fun it is to simply watch Strasburg work. The end of Strasburg’s season is drawing near — and he’s going out in style.
Even a 51-minute relay delay Tuesday night couldn’t slow the National League East leaders and their soon-to-be-out-of-the-rotation ace in a win over the fading Atlanta Braves. Strasburg was dominant in a six-inning, 10-strikeout performance. He provided the foundation for a 4-1 victory that extended the Nationals’ lead to a season-high seven games over second-place Atlanta.
What Strasburg did to the Braves was simply unfair.
When the right-hander consistently throws his 97-mph fastball for strikes — and has complete command of his knee-buckling curveball and off-the-charts changeup — opposing batters essentially step to the plate behind in the count. Strasburg’s command was as good as it gets in his fifth double-digit strikeout performance of the season and eighth of his career.
Apparently, the view from behind the plate was the best at Nationals Park.
“He was totally locked in,” said catcher Jesus Flores, who supported Strasburg with a three-run home run in the fifth.
“I love it. He was hitting my spots. We were pitching [inside]. The breaking ball was effective. . . . They were pretty much swinging at everything.”
More like flailing.
The victory put the Nationals (77-46) a season-high 31 games over .500. Strasburg improved to 15-5 and lowered his earned-run average 2.85. He reclaimed the NL strikeout lead at 183 in only 1451 / 3 innings.
The most surprising thing about Strasburg’s performance wasn’t his effectiveness in an important late-season game. By now, we’ve seen enough of Strasburg to know how he’s capable of dealing each time he stands on the pitcher’s mound with a ball in his hand.
The stunner was that the Nationals permitted Strasburg to continue pitching after the rain finally stopped. As anyone who follows Major League Baseball knows, the Nationals are proceeding cautiously with Strasburg in his first full season pitching after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.
No matter how many fans or baseball reporters protest, General Manager Mike Rizzo is sticking with his decision to play it safe. It just so happens Rizzo has made the right choice. It’s not worth risking Strasburg’s career, no matter how effectively he pitches, by potentially pushing him too far this season.
Strasburg won’t engage in the debate. He has work to do — as long as he’s allowed to stay on the clock.
“It’s funny. Nobody talks to me personally about it,” Strasburg said of the team-mandated innings limit that has not been revealed publicly. “I can either scour the Internet, watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching.”
The Nationals are expected to cap Strasburg’s innings somewhere between 160-180. I’m thinking the door shuts at about 170 innings. But that’s just a hunch.
So with Strasburg’s right arm so closely watched by the Nationals, it figured he might get the hook once the game was stopped with two out in the top of the third inning. No need to risk straining Strasburg’s arm, the thinking goes, with warming up again to resume pitching.
After the tarp was removed from the field, Strasburg’s teammates definitely thought he was done. But Nationals management threw a changeup.
“I know Stephen. He wants to pitch all the time,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who staked Strasburg to a 1-0 lead in the second with his 19th homer.
“The organization, on the other hand, I didn’t know how careful they would be. But he’s a bulldog. That was really awesome.”
Strasburg actually seemed stronger after the delay. He threw in the batting-cage area inside the stadium to stay warm, “and he was really fun to catch,” Flores said.
In fact, Strasburg said, he was feeling so good that leaving the game never crossed his mind. “I started to settle in,” he said. “I wasn’t out there pitching, but the adrenaline kind of died down. I went [back] out there and felt I was really catching my groove.”
A rain delay is a new experience for Strasburg. There is no better weather on the planet than in San Diego, where Strasburg played in college. He also had few weather-related bumps during his brief stint in the minor leagues.
Strasburg’s ability to return sharp against a strong opponent in a pennant stretch is exactly what teams expect from front-of-the-staff starters at this time of the year. Strasburg is proving he’s one of those rare guys.
“The job isn’t finished. It’s still August,” Strasburg said. “We’re still focused. We’re still trying to win as many games as we can.”
The Nationals seem to reach new heights daily, and Strasburg is providing wonderful memories. Soon, that’s all the Nationals and their fans will have left of him this season.