The Washington Times - June 1, 2013, 01:19AM

ATLANTA — The scene in the visitors’ dugout at Turner Field Friday night was tense. Stephen Strasburg, gaze unflinching, stared straight ahead. As his eyes conveyed anger, frustration and disappointment, the men around him — manager Davey Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty, head trainer Lee Kuntz and catcher Kurt Suzuki — carried on their one-sided conversations.  

Two innings into the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the game was no longer Strasburg’s to command. The grimacing and stretching he was doing on the mound, the effects of a strained right oblique that had been “nagging” him the past few outings while he’d pitched dominantly, had sealed his fate. 

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“He wanted to continue,” Johnson said. “But  I saw him wincing every throw he made, and even Suzuki made the sign, you know, like, ‘It’s not real good.’ I’m not gonna take a chance with his arm. That’s the main concern. The side will heal, but when you try to do too much with your hose out there, it’s dangerous. So he was not going to continue.”

The scene in the bullpen was one of more organized chaos.

Craig Stammen hopped from his seat and began to get the blood flowing through his right arm. 

“It’s like showing up for your tee time two minutes before it and going out there and having fun,” Stammen said. “I have (done that before). I’ve run to the tee box with my shoes untied and hit my first drive. (That round turned out) pretty good.”

An inning earlier, Stammen laughed when bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo told him to be ready because he thought Strasburg’s shoulder was “hurting.” Robledo had played that trick on Stammen before. 

“I’m like ‘He’s throwing 98. His shoulder’s not hurting,’” Stammen said. 

When the Nationals took the field for the bottom of the third inning, the bullpen doors opened and Stammen jogged in from right field. What followed was one of the most dominant relief performances the Nationals have had in some time — and the main reason why they were celebrating moving a game above .500 and to 4 ½ back of the Braves. 

Four innings. No hits, no walks, no runs. Three strikeouts.

“That was the game,” Suzuki said. “Player of the game right there. He just came up, threw strikes, kept us in the game with the lead. Shoot, that was pretty outstanding.” 

Stammen’s role as a long reliever can often lead to inconsistent workloads. In the 11 games the Nationals had played entering Friday night, Stammen had appeared only twice — once to relieve fellow long man Zach Duke, who made a spot start on May 20, and once to relieve Gio Gonzalez, who lasted only five innings on Monday. 

With that inconsistency came an unknown of how his stuff would be when he took the mound.

Friday night, with his slider working as well as it ever has and his sinker moving well, Stammen’s stuff was just fine.

“He definitely set the tone,” said center fielder Denard Span, who tripled twice and scored twice on sacrifice flies by Steve Lombardozzi. “I’m pretty sure once Stephen came out those guys were probably like ‘Whew we got Strasburg out of here’ and, normally, the long relief guy is pretty good hitting… Stammen, he’s real deceptive. Watching him from center field you can see how guys, especially right handed hitters, are stepping in a bucket. It’s just not a comfortable at-bat for them.” 

“He went out there and gave them four strong innings,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who drove in both Atlanta runs with a solo homer and a single. “Mowed right through us.”

For Stammen it was the continuation of a second strong season out of the bullpen. 

The Nationals have seemingly had moments of pause with every other reliever on staff this season — including a seventh inning on Friday by Tyler Clippard that Suzuki described as “eventful” in which he allowed a run, loaded the bases by hitting back-to-back batters and then escaped with a one-run lead still intact. 

But Stammen’s are few and far between. 

He became just the 43rd pitcher since 1993 to toss four innings or more of scoreless, hitless, walkless relief. Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are the only Nationals pitchers with better ERA’s than his 2.60 on the season.

“Craig, to me, is hands-down the best I’ve seen,” Suzuki said. “I always tell him: ‘Sheesh, whatever happened? You used to start? What happened?’ That’s for another day, I guess.”

“I was really enjoying myself,” Stammen said. “It was early in the game, we were winning, I felt like I was a starter again. I was having fun.” 

Stammen’s performance could not wholly lift the cloud that formed when Strasburg exited the game. 

For the Nationals, a significant blow to their ace right-hander would be difficult to sustain, especially with Ross Detwiler already on the disabled list with his own right oblique strain. Right-hander Erik Davis tweeted that he was called up to help the Nationals’ bullpen after it worked seven innings Friday night.

But it was a shining ray of light in what could’ve otherwise been another very dark day in a dark month of May. 

“I’m just thankful Stammen was able to come in and pick me up and win the first one,” Strasburg said. 

Stammen all but shrugged.

“I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll have my cleats on. If it goes 20 innings I’m sure I could flip something up there.”