Strasburg delivers in Nationals return

Foul weather breaks, allowing phenom to pitch

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The forecast was daunting, the radar a mishmash of greens, yellows and reds bearing down on Washington. Yet there stood Stephen Strasburg, bone dry, on a mound at Nationals Park, firing 97 mph fastballs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The picture of calm.

That fact alone seemed to be improbable. Three hours earlier, Nationals manager Davey Johnson sat in a room full of reporters and delivered what appeared to be the grim truth. He’d just spoken with head groundskeeper John Turnour, who told him, quite frankly, “there won’t be much of a window.”

But in spite of the projections for downpours of biblical proportions well throughout the night, the rainstorms that had pelted the D.C. area all day didn’t affect Strasburg. Neither did his surgically repaired right elbow.

In five dazzling innings, Strasburg looked less like a pitcher who hadn’t seen major league action in more than a year and more like the young ace who announced himself to the baseball world with authority last June.

“The game,” he said, “seemed like it was in slow motion out there.”

“I’ve never seen him any other way,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He doesn’t look like he’s making a whole lot of effort — 96 mph on the knees, on the corners. He threw some good breaking balls and had an outstanding change-up. It was almost unhittable.

“If you didn’t like what you saw tonight, you don’t like great pitchers.”

One year and three days after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Strasburg needed just 56 pitches to get through five innings of scoreless work. He struck out four, threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 17 Los Angeles Dodgers he faced and was still hitting 97 mph on the stadium’s radar gun when he fired his final pitch. He averaged 11.2 pitches per inning — less than any of the 12 starts he made for the Nationals in 2010 — and walked off the mound with a 3-0 lead, in line for his first major league win in 411 days. It was a return bright enough to overshadow an eventual 7-3 Nationals loss.

“Unbelievable,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, shaking his head. “His pitches, his stuff, his arm speed. Everything. It was unbelievable.”

“It looked like he didn’t skip a beat,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “That’s pretty special. To be able to come back — with the adrenaline, the media, everything else — and be able to hone in on the strike zone and do your job to that ability? Unbelievable.”

His first pitch came in right on schedule. At 7:10 p.m., Strasburg fired a 96 mph fastball up and away to shortstop Dee Gordon, who fouled it off. Three pitches later, Gordon doubled to left-center field on a 97 mph, letter-high fastball. And until Juan Rivera’s grounder sneaked up the middle in the fourth inning, he was the last Dodger to know the feeling of reaching base against the Nationals’ phenom.

Twenty-six minutes — and five batters — after he threw his first pitch, Strasburg dropped in the first changeup he’s thrown from a major league mound since the fateful one in Philadelphia last Aug. 21. It came in at 90 mph, bounced in front of the plate and still Andre Ethier swung. Then Ethier sat down, the first out of the second inning.

Fifteen others tried, and they all failed. Four of them did so by flailing at Strasburg’s final offering. He struck out those four, all swinging, and generated six swings and misses. He’s often said that despite the gaudy totals he is not a strikeout pitcher. Ascribing to pitching coach Steve McCatty’s philosophy, Strasburg has said he aims for early contact and ground balls. The strikeouts happen because, well, sometimes they just can’t hit it. The Dodgers couldn’t Tuesday night.

“It really is a mindset,” he said. “Guys know they don’t want to get to two strikes.”

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