Every Stephen Strasburg start is precious. His time is limited by a right elbow that employs a tendon pulled from his thigh two years ago. It has reached the point in the year where fans pull out their schedules, calculators and pens and start guessing when in the next month or so the right-hander will last climb the mound for the Washington Nationals this season.
Rain, thunder and lightning threatened Tuesday’s start against the Atlanta Braves in the Nationals’ biggest series to date. The weather sent Strasburg into the dugout for nearly an hour after the second inning, leaving all guessing if he would take the mound again.
He did, and mowed down Atlanta in a 4-1 win, using a dazzling array of pitches to notch 10 strikeouts and make the Braves look foolish. Fans, nearly deprived of his mastery, watched as he tore through a division rival’s lineup with a fastball pinpointed to the last inch, and a change-up and curveball that produced head-scratching laughter. How was anyone with a wooden bat in hand expected to challenge that?
“He was just painting, had everything working,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It was fun to watch. Change-up, curveball, fastball, you name it, they were all devastating. One of the more impressive things I’ve seen out of him, especially coming out of that rain delay.”
With only a handful of starts left in an as-yet-announced innings limit, it is as if Strasburg (15-5) is saving his best for the end. He has won his past four starts. He has allowed only four runs over the past 24 innings, good for a 1.50 ERA. He has given up only 12 hits, 10 walks and struck out 29 batters. It has been his most dominating stretch since the start of the season.
His prowess has propelled the Nationals (77-46) to a seven-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East. The Nationals continued their status as the best team in the sport. With each game, they reach new heights, ones unseen in Washington in nearly 80 years.
“I take nothing for granted,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “[An] eight-[game lead] would be better. “
Strasburg climbed the mound just after 7 p.m. for his 25th start of the season, his first full one in a career interrupted by his elbow injury. He command was sharp from the start, allowing two singles over the first two innings, and striking out three batters. Then came the rain.
It fell lightly at first, then turned to a torrent. By the third inning, Strasburg hurled the ball to batters through the water. He struck out Braves starter Paul Maholm swinging on four pitches and induced a flyout to left field from Michael Bourn. But the elements were too much, lightning flashed across the sky, and the players retreated to their dugouts.
A long rain delay would spell doom for Strasburg. Sitting around and then warming back up could mean too much stress for his arm and elbow. Johnson wanted to use Strasburg as long as he needed to against the Braves, maybe even past 100 pitches, especially given the 13-inning game the previous night that took a toll on his bullpen. But the rain was poised to short-circuit that plan.
In the indoor batting cages attached to the dugout, Strasburg stayed warm in his first-ever short rain-delayed start. He made 10 to 15 throws then retreated to the clubhouse. Under the guidance of pitching coach Steve McCatty, he repeated this. Soon, the game was ready to resume. The grounds crew prepared the field faster than normal. Everyone wanted Strasburg on the mound as fast as possible. Any delay past an hour, and Johnson would have ended Strasburg’s night.
But after a 51-minute pause, Strasburg emerged from the dugout and took his place back on the mound. Many of the 33,888 fans inside Nationals Park cheered. “It reminded me a lot of my debut out there,” he said of the support in the game.
His first victim in his return was Martin Prado, who struck out on four pitches, the last a devastating curveball. The ball hooked toward the plate, dropping in for a strike as Prado bent back. “You don’t see big league hitters very often pull back,” Johnson said.
Strasburg struck out six of the final 12 batters he faced, allowing only one run in the sixth inning. His tailing change-up toyed with the left-handed-heavy Braves lineup. He held down the potent offense long enough for his own team to score the needed runs.
“My breaking ball was working better, to be honest,” he said. “I went to that a little bit more than I have my change-up. That was a big thing that I’ve been able to start throwing more for strikes early.”
Desmond demolished an 87-mph fastball over the left field bullpen as the rain fell for the first run of the game in the second inning. He drilled another pitch from Maholm in right center for a double in the fifth inning — further erasing any doubts that his timing was affected since returning from the disabled list on Friday without any minor league rehab games.
Tuesday was also redemptive for Jesus Flores, Strasburg’s battery mate. The catcher has taken his lumps this season for caring too much about his offense. He has help shepherd the Nationals’ pitching staff to the lowest ERA in the majors. Yet, when his offense struggled of late, it wounded him.
With one swing in the fifth inning, Flores provided a reprieve. He connected on a cutter from Maholm, driving it to deep left field, clearing the wall by no more than four feet for a three-run home run. Fans erupted. Flores had given his pitcher enough of a cushion to essentially lock up another victory.
Strasburg said he doesn’t view these final starts as his version of the playoffs, given he is up against Braves.
“It’s the regular season,” he said. “I’m going to keep pitching, and I’m in it with these guys for the long run.”
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