SAN DIEGO — Stephen Strasburg climbed the mound on Thursday night with a mission. Whether it was intentional or not, whether it was spoken or not, it seemed the Washington Nationals big right-hander felt there were some questions to be answered. And he was ready to let his performance do the talking.
In a larger picture, he stood on the precipice of his future. A step forward could help further his progress toward becoming the type of ace pitcher his talent has already decided he should be. One step back would only open him up to more questions.
A week of questions had followed Strasburg and the Nationals. Questions about his mental toughness, about his ability to overcome adversity. Questions about the kind of pitcher he is, was or wanted to become.
In the Nationals’ 6-2 victory over the Padres, that included long home runs by Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper, Strasburg was not perfect. He did not need to be. He was confident, collected, and more than good enough. His run support was present, and loud. His body language was absent of any defeated poses en route to the first eight-inning performance of his career.
“Tonight, he had to pitch,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “He went out there and he pitched.
“He had a different mentality tonight. He’s not letting the little things bother him. Guys hit the ball hard, had good swings off him, and it was more of ‘OK, hit this one.’ It wasn’t ‘Oh no, what do I do now?’ It was that bulldog mentality, that horse mentality. I’m going to come right at you. Here it is, hit it.”
Strasburg had 50 of his friends and family in the stands at Petco Park as he made his first start as a major leaguer inside the stadium he grew up attending. And an untold number of other well-wishers who’d watched the Nationals’ phenom in the days before he was one of baseball’s most famous faces also shouted their encouragement.
But the loudest talking came from the right-hander himself.
Five days ago, an error by Ryan Zimmerman derailed Strasburg. Thinking he’d already gotten the third out of the fifth inning, the right-hander could not regroup enough against the bottom of the Cubs’ order to actually get it. A dominant performance dissolved, almost inexplicably.
In the days after that start, Strasburg sat in the dugout and watched the way Jordan Zimmermann and Clayton Kershaw carried themselves on the mound. He actively worked to model his demeanor after theirs. He was tired of letting outside forces detract from what he does best.
“Your teammates feed off your confidence,” Strasburg said. “When one thing doesn’t go the way you thought it would, try not to let it affect the next pitch. That’s when I’m most successful — when I kind of block out all the stuff and just focus on throwing each pitch. Focus on the next one.”
Thursday night, with two runners on, Zimmerman made a tremendous stop of a hard-hit ball down the line. In an attempt to get a force out at second base, and a half-inning after he stroked a two-run single to center field, Zimmerman committed another error. His throw to Steve Lombardozzi was high. Instead of an out, or possibly two, the bases were loaded — though the Nationals still had a 5-0 lead at the time.
Suzuki thought he should probably go out to the mound to talk to Strasburg.
Then Strasburg looked at Zimmerman, pointed at him, and said “I got you.” The one motion spoke volumes.
“Once he did that, I turned around and went right back to home plate,” Suzuki said. “I knew that he was going to do it. They scored one run, so what? He limited the damage, got us out of the inning, we got back, scored more runs, and that’s how it works. He did a great job.”
“It’s huge when a pitcher notices stuff like that,” LaRoche said. “It goes a long way. And it’s tough for young guys to do that. They’re so locked in on what they’re doing, a lot of times they don’t see what’s going on with the rest of the team.”
Then Strasburg induced a ground out to first base from Everth Cabrera. He watched Jedd Gyorko, who’d doubled to open the inning, score. He didn’t let it rattle him. Instead he used three pitches to strike out Will Venable. Inning over. Threat over.
Strasburg may not have been as sharp as ever. He didn’t command his offspeed pitches the way he can when he’s clicking on all cylinders, and he walked three while only striking out four.
But he was given the gift of run support. And he pitched — with his head, and his arm.
With his pitch count at 107 by the time the seventh inning ended, Strasburg was relieved not to see manager Davey Johnson waiting for him at the top step of the dugout. He expended only 10 more pitches to retire the Padres in the eighth.
“So this is what it feels like,” he thought.
As they walked off the field together, the Nationals swarmed their right-hander. The first time he’d ever thrown a pitch in the eighth inning as a professional went smoothly, outside of a walk to Chase Headley. A commanding performance finished with a flourish: Strasburg threw 93-96 mph on his 108-117th pitches.
“I thought he just stayed more focused,” said Johnson. “He made pitches when he had to. That’s more like him.”
So the Nationals broke a two-game losing streak. They saw their star pitcher turn in his finest performance of the season — as it pertains to results — and turned their eyes optimistically toward the next few games. If Strasburg can continue to pitch with that type of mentality, as LaRoche put it ‘Sky’s the limit.’
That goes for the rest of his team, too.
“It’s great to see Stras pitch like that, don’t get me wrong,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “But that was how we play baseball. Hit a couple homers, pitched well. We were rooting for each other on the whole game.
“That was a huge step in the right direction. It’s got to start somewhere. We’ve been taking baby steps. I think that was a breath of fresh air as a whole.”