After five brilliant innings Tuesday night announced Stephen Strasburg's return to the majors, no one expected him to do anything but somehow improve on that performance.
Gone was the rain that threatened to derail his first start, gone were the first-start jitters in the back of everyone's mind as the team's ace took the mound for the first time since his ulnar collateral ligament blew last August. Yet, in front of a crowd of 24,238, on Sunday against the Houston Astros, Strasburg threw just one more pitch than he did Tuesday night and two innings fewer.
His start, which lasted 57 pitches and featured four strikeouts, became less top billing than it was a footnote in an 8-2 Nationals victory. In a game that featured back-to-back-to-back home runs by Ian Desmond, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Zimmerman, Strasburg's start was by no means poor. But a lengthy first inning derailed his quest to go deeper into the game.
"I said 'Look, I don't want to have to hook you during the inning.' " said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who had him on a 70-pitch limit. " 'As far as I'm concerned, it's like your second start in spring training. It's enough for me. You're not going to go five.' "
"He was irritated," Johnson admitted. "He said 'Just three?' I said, 'Yeah, just three.' ... And then it turned out to be an even more right decision because we were hitting for a long time."
Unlike Tuesday, Strasburg had a hard time being efficient against an Astros lineup that fouled off 15 of his 57 pitches — including 10 in the first inning — and worked deep into the count against him in five straight at-bats to open the game. His pitch count broke 30 before the first inning was over, and the Astros - sandwiching an infield hit and an RBI single to center field by Carlos Lee around strikeouts - earned the first run of Strasburg's post-Tommy John career.
"We were just trying to feel him out," Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez said. "He'd get ahead and then he'd fall behind right away. It's not like he was just strike, strike, strike, strike and we were fouling them off. He'd throw a couple strikes and then he'd throw a couple balls. We were just being patient with him."
Said Strasburg: "I was kind of rushing a little bit. My lower half was gripping, that was causing the command to not be there. ... At the same time, they were fouling a lot of pitches off.
"So that's what ran my pitch count up in the first inning. If I threw pitches down in the zone a bit more, maybe it would have been more ground balls instead of foul balls to the stands."
His offense made that run a moot point, with the home run display in the third and tacking on five on RB from Chris Marrero (two), Laynce Nix, Desmond and Zimmerman.
Strasburg settled down after that, throwing just 15 pitches (11 strikes) in the second and 11 pitches (nine strikes) in the third. His velocity was a bit lower than it was Tuesday, when he popped the mitt consistently at 96-97 mph. Sunday, he sat more in the 92-94 mph range and touched 97 just once. He struck out three on changeups and one on a 96 mph fastball, and gave up three hits. In two starts, Strasburg has thrown 113 pitches in eight innings, struck out eight, walked none and given up five hits.
"Because I was kind of rushing a little bit, the four-seamer lost the true jump to it," Strasburg said. "So some came out as two-seamers. ... When you're rushing a little bit, it elevates a little more and has more run than sink. I think that's why they were fouling it off more than getting the groundballs that you want."
Tom Gorzelanny (3-6) earned the win with three shutout innings. Strasburg, who has said on several occasions how much he'd prefer no special treatment, was just one of the participants in the series-clinching win.
As the Nationals prepared to head to New York, the rookies were initiated by donning Smurfs attire for the trip. With 16 players painted blue, in white tights and with various applicable headgear, Strasburg smiled and rolled his eyes.
"I think I'm going to be the biggest Smurf anybody's ever seen," he said.
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