The rain came pouring down upon him. A small cell that parked itself over Nationals Park just before 8 p.m. Tuesday night threatened to derail him. It threatened to knock him out of a pivotal divisional game far earlier than the Washington Nationals or their ferocious right-hander would’ve liked.
Stephen Strasburg is already a man living through a season with an expiration date. The number of times he’ll be able to take the mound in 2012 and dazzle, the way he did in the Nationals’ 4-1 series-clinching, division lead-expanding victory over the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night, is dwindling.
So as the teams were sent off the field in the third inning, the deluge lasting for the better part of the next 51 minutes, Strasburg was determined not to let this game get away from him.
“He learns every time out,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said before the game. “That’s exciting to me. And it should be exciting to everyone else, instead of worrying about when he’s getting shut down. He’s a remarkable young arm.”
On the advice of pitching coach Steve McCatty, Strasburg threw in the batting cage while the teams waited out the storm. He unleashed 10-15 pitches in two separate sessions, each time returning to the clubhouse for an update and kept his arm ready for the restart. Anything longer than an hour and his night would be finished. He was saved by nine minutes.
And then he proved his manager prophetic.
When play resumed, Strasburg put on a display of dominance so impressive multiple Braves hitters buckled or pulled back from the plate, only to strikeout looking. In six innings in which he flashed everything — fastball, curveball, changeup — with near unhittable precision, he offered the latest reminder of the complex nature of his season.
While his talent will likely leave the Nationals dying to see more this season, it’s that same otherworldly ability they are wary of pushing to the breaking point.
“He was totally locked in tonight,” said catcher Jesus Flores, whose three-run homer in the fifth gave Strasburg the cushion he and the Nationals’ bullpen would need to secure the ace’s 15th win of the season and secure a seven-game lead in the National League East.
“I loved it. It was really fun to catch him.”
If part of the enjoyment in watching Strasburg pitch is that evolution, Tuesday night was one of the most enjoyable nights of the season for the Nationals and their fans. He worked through the first real rain-interrupted start of his career and returned to the mound stronger than he was in the 2 ⅔ innings before the weather arrived. His fastball buzzed on the black. His changeup devastated hitters. And he felt the curveball was better than both.
Staked to a1-0 lead on Ian Desmond’s 19th home run of the season in the second inning, Strasburg began to dominate. He struck out six of the first eight batters he faced after the delay and 10 overall. He helped the Nationals keep their foot on the throat of their only remaining divisional competition.
“From what I’ve seen, Stephen always seen performs better when situations like that arise,” Desmond said. “When it’s kind of backed up against him.
“Changeup, curveball, fastball, you name it. There were all devastating. One of the more impressive things I’ve seen out of him.”
After three sometimes-dicey but scoreless innings of relief from Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard, the Nationals had another win. Another statement. Another step toward their ultimate goal. And one start closer to the day they’ll be without Strasburg.