PHILADELPHIA — Stephen Strasburg’s odometer read 102 pitches Friday night when the concerned three-man crew jogged to the mound at Citizens Bank Park to check on him. The Washington Nationals’ star right-hander, the one with the troublesome injury history, was favoring his left calf with one out in the sixth inning of the Nationals’ 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The calf was cramping. He flexed it. He moved it around. But he refused to leave the mound. He told the concerned trio he was good. So Manager Dusty Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux and trainer Paul Lessard let him be. Strasburg was intent on cleaning up his mess, on pitching deeper into the game to ease the burden on Washington’s shorthanded bullpen.
“He wanted it big-time,” Baker said. “First time I’ve seen him kind of mad and showing emotion, which is fine with me.”
Cameron Rupp stepped to the plate following the chat. Ten pitches later, Rupp was on first base with a walk, and Strasburg was at 112 pitches, the most he had thrown in a start since partially tearing his pronator tendon in September. But Strasburg stayed in to face Freddy Galvis. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat and Strasburg’s 119th of the night, matching a career high, Galvis chased a fastball high out of the strike zone for strike three. With that, Strasburg was done.
“You want to be in those situations,” Strasburg said. “They were putting together grind-it-out at-bats. Got to make the next pitch. Got to make the next pitch. The calf started to spasm a little bit on me, but I just got to find a way.”
Blake Treinen needed one pitch to dodge further damage, but the sinkerballer’s miserable 2017 continued when he allowed two runs in the seventh inning before Enny Romero overpowered the Phillies (12-16) for four outs. With co-closers Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover on the disabled list, Matt Albers was then summoned to achieve what had eluded him in 460 previous relief appearances over his 12-year major league career.
Albers had finished 102 games in his career, but none warranted a save. Only one reliever in major league history had finished more games without one (journeyman Ryan Webb, who pitched last for the Rays last season). Albers finally got the save, working around a hit batter to seal Washington’s third straight victory and become the fifth Nationals pitcher to record a save in the club’s closer carousel. He has yet to allow a run in 11 1/3 innings this season.
“I’m kind of glad it’s over with,” said Albers, who kept the ball and was given the night’s lineup card to commemorate the occasion. “But it’s just one, so it’s not really moving me up the charts too much.”
The Nationals (20-9) botched scoring opportunities without Bryce Harper, who didn’t play because of a sore left groin. They left 11 runners on base. They hit three home runs, but all were without a runner on base.
Strasburg (3-1) labored somewhat and failed to log seven innings for the first time this season but protected the slim lead he was given with 5⅔ scoreless innings. He walked four (one intentionally) and compiled five strikeouts, the final on a cramping calf Strasburg said resulted from dehydration.
“He’s the worst sweater I’ve ever seen,” said Baker, whose starting pitchers have tossed at least 105 pitches in each of the past four games.
But enough about that. Strasburg shuts lineups down almost every fifth day when he’s healthy. Let’s get to the once-every-half-decade feat he pulled off with a bat in his hands. It was the second inning, and Strasburg was staring at a 1-2 count with one out against former Nationals farmhand Nick Pivetta. He had taken a ball after swinging through a pitch and fouling off three others when Pivetta uncorked a 94-mph fastball. The pitch roared down and in on Strasburg, a seductive offering most pitchers, Strasburg included, usually can’t get to in time.
But Strasburg dropped his hands, turned on the four-seamer and barreled the ball with authority. And it went far — 404 feet, to be exact, over the wall in left-center field. The home run, official after Strasburg’s unhurried trot around the bases, doubled the Nationals’ lead to 2-0. The dugout erupted.
“Lucky. No business swinging at that pitch, number one,” Strasburg said. “I don’t really know how I connected on it. I was just fortunate I was able to get to it, I guess.”
It was the second home run of Strasburg’s career. The first came against the Baltimore Orioles at Nationals Park on May 20, 2012, when he hit one off Wei-Yin Chen. More experienced home run artists took it from there. First, Ryan Zimmerman continued his incredible start, whacking a 95-mph fastball over the wall in right-center field for a solo homer.
It was Zimmerman’s 12th home run and 31st RBI in 112 plate appearances. He posted 15 and 46 in 467 plate appearances in 2016. He later doubled and finished 3 for 5. The double was his 596th career extra-base hit, setting a franchise record. His batting average stands at .433. Anthony Rendon followed with his own home run to right-center field, and the cushion was enough for Strasburg, though not without some apprehension in the sixth inning.