CHICAGO — The outcome of the game — and we’ll get to that in a moment — seemed almost incidental Thursday for the Washington Nationals. Of much greater import was the performance of Stephen Strasburg, who was starting the first of what the club is hoping will be a career full of season openers. Did Strasburg look like Strasburg? Did he break bats as if they were matchsticks and overpower hitters with stuff that, at its best, is almost unfair? Or was he still feeling his way after Tommy John surgery and a mere 24 major league innings last year?
It didn’t take long to find out. His first inning lasted all of seven pitches. His second lasted the same. On a cold (41 degrees), blustery (18 mph wind) afternoon at Wrigley Field, Strasburg kept pounding the strike zone with his vaunted fastball, and the Chicago Cubs kept swinging early in the count because, well, who wants to get to two strikes against Stephen Strasburg?
All in all, it was about as perfect a beginning as the Nationals could have imagined for their ace. He pitched through the seventh, allowed just five hits and one run, and didn’t overtax his valuable right arm, throwing just 82 pitches. And though he left trailing 1-0, the Nats scored in the eighth and ninth — thanks, in the latter case, to huge hits by Chad Tracy and Ian Desmond — to steal a 2-1 victory.
Of course, as Brad Lidge, who got the save, said, “On a cold day like today, it’s almost impossible to drive the ball on him. And if he’s getting the ball in on you, it’s over. … You saw what happened on [Ryan Zimmerman’s] ball early in the game. If that’s not going out, nothing’s going out.”
Actually, Zimmerman crushed two Ryan Dempster offerings that, under more hospitable circumstances, would have landed in the seats — if not beyond them. But the wind was blowing in, making “hitting the ball in the air pretty useless,” as Desmond put it. The wind did have one drawback for Strasburg, though. It kept his hands unusually dry, which made it harder to get a good grip on breaking balls.
“He didn’t throw a lot of quality [ones],” Davey Johnson said. “Didn’t have much feel for it. The hit he gave up to Marlon Byrd was on a hanging breaking ball.”
But Byrd’s line single to left in the fourth — which drove in the Cubs’ only run — was the only time Strasburg was in any kind of trouble. He struck out five, walked one and allowed only a handful of balls to reach the outfield. Not bad for a pitcher who hadn’t had to deal with this kind of weather since he was playing at Air Force for San Diego State.
“I just tried to establish the fastball early and work off of that,” Strasburg said. He consistently clocked 95 on the radar gun and, with his breaking balls not having much bite, mixed in instead what Lidge described as a “nasty” changeup. Most of all, he did what a No. 1 pitcher is supposed to do. On a day when the offense was slow to get going, “he kept us in the ballgame,” the manager said.
Strasburg’s pitch count was so low he easily could have pitched another inning — if, that is, his team hadn’t been down a run when he was due to bat in the eighth. “In an atmosphere like this, a close game, you obviously want to stay in,” he said. “But that’s out of my control. There’s obviously a lot of players on the bench who can hit better than me.”
There are, indeed. The pinch hitter Johnson sent to the plate, Tracy, didn’t come through on that occasion, but he stayed in the lineup at first base and doubled in the ninth to set up the winning run. But that — coming away with a victory on a blowy April day in Chicago — was just a bonus for the Nationals, nice as it was. The bigger thrill for the organization was seeing Strasburg step on the mound and throw the ball, inning after inning, like the pitcher of their dreams.
And as if that weren’t enough, there was this warning from Lidge, chilling in its brevity: “He’s only going to get better.”