Manager Matt Williams presented Stephen Strasburg with an opportunity Wednesday afternoon. Strasburg wants the Washington Nationals to lean on him, and he wants the ball in moments like the one that arose at the start of the eighth inning. He had thrown 106 pitches. The Nationals clung to a one-run lead. The top of an imposing lineup loomed. And Williams sent him to the mound.
“He’s our horse,” Williams said. “I want to show confidence, and we as an organization want to show confidence in him. If we get to that point, we’re not afraid to throw you back out there and let you go.”
Strasburg did not record the final three outs the Nationals asked of him. Because of their flawless bullpen, he didn’t need to. Jerry Blevins and Tyler Clippard each recorded one crucial out after Strasburg exited, lifting the Nationals to a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers and validating Strasburg’s start, sterling even if he finished two outs shy of eight full innings.
Strasburg pitched to Wilson Ramos, who in his first appearance since opening day went 1 for 2 with a walk, a double and a game-winning sacrifice fly in the fifth inning. The Nationals clobbered former teammate Dan Haren in the first inning to erase another early deficit. Rafael Soriano struck out Matt Kemp to finish off his seventh save, his 25th consecutive scoreless inning and a rare 1-2-3 inning. In between, Strasburg settled in.
After the Dodgers scored two runs on four consecutive singles in the first inning, Strasburg retired 20 of the final 25 batters he faced. In total, he allowed two runs over 71 / 3 innings, striking out six and allowing seven hits, all singles.
Strasburg struck out Justin Turner with a high fastball, his 106th pitch, to end the seventh inning. When he returned to the dugout, he assumed he would come back for the eighth. He had not thrown a pitch past the seventh this year, and in his career he had only pitch in the eighth five times. But he yearned for the chance.
“That’s the position I want to be in,” Strasburg said. “That’s going to make me a better pitcher in the long run. Every time out, I want to go as deep as I can and keep it close.”
Dee Gordon led off the eighth with a perfect bunt single between Strasburg and second baseman Danny Espinosa. After Carl Crawford lined out to left, Williams let Strasburg face Hanley Ramirez. He walked on a change-up in the dirt, Strasburg’s 114th pitch.
“I definitely felt really strong there going through,” Strasburg said. “For some reason, I just couldn’t throw that change-up for a strike to Hanley.”
With left-hander Adrian Gonzalez up, Williams took the ball from Strasburg and summoned Blevins, who has been one of the most reliable pieces of a dominating bullpen.
“He pitched his butt off, like a true ace,” Blevins said of Strasburg. “My main goal is to get that out for him.”
Blevins thought back to how he got Gonzalez out Monday. Early, he tried to make him chase a curve away. As Gonzalez fouled off pitches, Blevins shifted and started pumping fastballs inside. “I was trying to give him something he would think he would want to hit, trying to out-smart him,” Blevins said.
On the 10th pitch of the confrontation, Blevins threw a 91-mph sinker on Gonzalez’s fists. He popped up foul to third base.
Blevins had done his job, and Williams called for Clippard. He threw one pitch to Yasiel Puig, who hit a rocket to center field and tossed his bat like a pencil. Denard Span had positioned him perfectly. Clippard pumped his fist.
The bullpen’s stranding of the runners leveled a remarkable statistic. Past the second inning this season, Strasburg has allowed five runs in 501 / 3 innings — a 0.89 ERA.
The first two innings, especially the first, are a different story. Wednesday, with one out in the first, Crawford bounced a single up the middle. Ramirez rolled a hard grounder through the left side. Gonzalez ripped a groundball to the right side. First baseman Adam LaRoche said his quad injury prevented him from crouching as he normally would, and the ball scooted under his glove, into right field for an RBI single. The inning continued, and Puig somehow hooked a low-and-away change-up into left field, scoring another run.
The 2-0 deficit could be piled atop Strasburg opening struggles. He has allowed 11 runs in eight first innings this season. In the first two innings, Strasburg owns a 7.31 ERA.
“I just get a better feel for the pitches and the stuff,” Strasburg said. “I’ve been trying not to go out there and give up a crooked number early. But you can give up one or two early and just keep it close and give your guys a chance to get back into the ballgame or get the lead. That’s what you’re trying to do.”
The Nationals erased the deficit immediately. LaRoche is in the lineup only for his scorching bat, and he pounded one of Haren’s cutters off the right field fence with runners on second and third. Then he hobbled to first. “That’s a long single there,” LaRoche said. It also tied the game.
Up came Ramos. On the first pitch he saw, Ramos blasted a cutter off the 377-foot mark on the left-center field fence for a double, but LaRoche would only make it to third.
“I know Haren. I know how he likes to pitch,” Ramos said. “I was waiting for one pitch in the zone, and he threw it to me. And I hit it hard.”
In the fifth, Ramos came to the plate in a moment fit for a storybook — bases loaded, one out, crowd on its feet. Ramos drilled Haren’s 3-2 cutter to right field, deep enough for Span to score standing up, even on Puig’s jet-fueled throw home. It may not have been dramatic, but Ramos’s lineout gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead.
“I was very excited today,” Ramos said. “I was waiting for this moment for like five weeks. I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to be back on the team.”
Not yet whole, the Nationals welcomed him. They would end Wednesday tied with the Miami Marlins, and a half game ahead of the Atlanta Braves, atop the NL East even as they play without Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. Ramos had returned, and Doug Fister would debut Friday in Oakland.
“We’ve kind of weathered the storm here,” Blevins said. “I feel like we’re about to hit our stride We’re coming into our own, figuring out who we are as a team. It’s going to keep going from here.”
Afterward, the Nationals packed for what’s next. Dressed in a suit and shades, Soriano walked out of the clubhouse. Pitching coach Steve McCatty walked past. “One-two-three inning,” McCatty said to him. “I love it!”
Soriano blew him a kiss and said, “I know you’re happy.” They both laughed and walked toward the idling team bus, headed to Oakland with plenty of reasons to be happy.