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Stephen Strasburg shuts down the NL-best Dodgers and lets the Nationals avoid a sweep

Stephen Strasburg allowed one run in seven innings, striking out nine, to win his seventh straight start.
Stephen Strasburg allowed one run in seven innings, striking out nine, to win his seventh straight start. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Off the field, into the dugout, down the steps and through a hallway, Manager Dave Martinez watched his Washington Nationals from the clubhouse. Back there, out on the field, his starter became the stopper his team needed.

After getting ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the first inning, the restless Martinez tried each of the roughly half-dozen TVs and gained a new perspective on Stephen Strasburg as he carved up a potent Los Angeles Dodgers lineup in an 11-4 win Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

“His fastball was really, really good, and he had good movement,” Martinez said. “When he starts mixing all his pitches like that, and [he’s] able to throw them for strikes whenever he wants, he’s tough.”

After a narrow loss Friday and a not-so-close defeat Saturday, the Nationals’ top healthy starter was at his best when his team needed it. He allowed just one run and two hits over seven innings while walking none and striking out nine to earn a win in his seventh straight start and snap the team’s first three-game losing streak since May. At the plate, he contributed a run-scoring single in the sixth inning that gave him more RBI (six) than earned runs allowed (four) in July.

“It’s better to be lucky than good sometimes,” Strasburg grinned when asked about his three-game hitting streak.

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The game looked as if it might go sideways in the first when tension that had been building between the Nationals and the umpires all weekend boiled over. After thinking he had walked on a 3-1 pitch and then striking out, Adam Eaton pointed at the plate with his bat, and home plate umpire Jeremie Rehak pointed the other direction and ejected him. Just as Eaton got heated, Martinez jumped in the middle of it. The manager earned his third ejection of the season with about a minute of yelling and, at one point, scratching out the chalk on the inner half of the left-handed batter’s box.

In the fifth inning, Matt Adams left the game, too; back in the second, the first baseman had been hit on the top of his right foot by an 89-mph slider from Dodgers starter Walker Buehler and then tried unsuccessfully to score from first on a Brian Dozier double. Adams had an X-ray after the game and said he expects to know more Monday.

The Nationals were down to a two-man bench — half of which was catcher Yan Gomes — for the rest of the game, and the Dodgers grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top half of the inning.

But then Dozier hit a two-run homer, Victor Robles tripled, and the hits continued to fly to the opposite field as the Nationals scored three runs in the fifth, four more in the sixth and four in the eighth to cruise past the top team in the major leagues. Robles finished a home run shy of the cycle after starting the game on the bench; he entered after Eaton got tossed.

“You’re welcome,” Eaton joked to Robles in the clubhouse after the game.

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Strasburg’s outing became more important because Martinez offered a discouraging evaluation of Max Scherzer’s lingering back trouble. The ace did cardio Sunday afternoon but did not throw a bullpen session, Martinez said after the game. He added that the right-hander is “very doubtful” to make his scheduled start Tuesday against NL East leader Atlanta.

“We’ll feel out what happens with him tomorrow,” Martinez said.

If Scherzer misses more time, Strasburg becomes the de facto ace — and the Nationals need him to perform as he did Sunday, mixing his off-speed pitches to get the fastball-happy Dodgers off balance.

The Nationals still haven’t acquired any bullpen help, so they’re left, as Wednesday’s trade deadline nears, with the status quo. That puts the onus on Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez to do all they can — because the other two rotation spots remaining in flux makes the staff vulnerable. The past two series — four wins in seven games against Colorado and Los Angeles — showed how short starts weigh on a bullpen that struggles mightily to be reliable when taxed several days in a row.

On Sunday, the bullpen was fresh, but Strasburg made it irrelevant. He gave Martinez what he expects from his starters — 21 outs — and the offense created enough separation to prevent, for at least one day, any high-leverage innings from the relievers. Dozier said it was one of Strasburg’s best performances of the season.

“His fastball is moving more than ever,” Dozier said. “[His approach to] those left-handed hitters: Throw it right at the hip, make it run back to the inside part of the plate. When you have that going with the change-up that’s obviously really good, it makes a tough day for the opponents.”

For the Nationals, the positive spin from this series is that it reinforced what they already knew: The bullpen remains an existential threat to their season (Friday’s 4-2 loss), the fifth-starter fill-ins will cost them games (Saturday’s 9-3 defeat), and Strasburg can come through in big moments (Sunday). Yet if you think about what this series revealed as a possible playoff preview, there really was little.

Washington is working to address its bullpen woes, but even if it doesn’t, the relievers will be better rested in the postseason — and Martinez will use his better arms more aggressively anyway. The fifth starter also wouldn’t be a factor.

“Once we get healthy, once we get everything going, I think we match up really well with them,” Martinez said. “Granted, their record’s better than ours, but if you look, we match up really well.”

If the Nationals get another chance to prove it, it’ll be in October.

Read more on the Washington Nationals:

For openers, Dodgers expose Nats’ issues in back of their rotation with 9-3 rout

Why Gerardo Parra’s decision to not slide into home may have cost the Nationals