The pitcher who stood on the mound Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field was dominant. He was precise. He was efficient and breathtakingly effective. As New York Mets manager Terry Collins aptly put it after the Washington Nationals beat his team 5-2, "He was tremendous, my gosh almighty."
He was not, then, the same guy who'd pitched five days earlier on a rainy night in Washington.
When Stephen Strasburg last descended the mound, his manager was not pleased. A game that would become one of the biggest debacles in franchise history was lost long after Strasburg exited, but when Davey Johnson debriefed that night he reserved criticism for his otherworldly ace.
Strasburg was not attacking hitters as forcibly as he should, Johnson said. He was not pitching as authoritatively as he could. He was nibbling with his secondary pitches instead of pounding with his fastball. He was, as Johnson summed up, "better than that."
Wednesday, on a sun-splashed afternoon, Strasburg was allowed his rebuttal. In a sweep-clinching victory, Strasburg was every bit the force he's capable of being for seven sparkling innings.
Strasburg struck out 11 but was so efficient he threw just 13.4 pitches per inning. His command was so precise four of his 11 strikeouts came with Mets hitters frozen in the box, unable to even offer at a pitch they never expected to be a strike.
In the words of his catcher, Sandy Leon, "Today, he was perfect."
In another season, one unhindered by innings limits, at just 94 pitches after seven he'd be given the leash to throw a complete game. "When he pitches like that, he's going to throw a lot of [them]," Johnson said. But in this one, he had to settle for one of the best starts of his career and a victory that moved the Nationals (58-39) to 19 games over .500 for the first time since July 5, 2005.
"That is the Strasburg I've known for a long time," Johnson said Wednesday. "That's him. That's what he does. He was very pitch-efficient from the get-go. He went right after guys.
"He's still learning how to pitch in this league. He's got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity. But he's still a work in progress."
Strasburg has made 37 major league starts. His talent makes it impossible not to critique him the way you would one of the game's established elite. But every now and then, there's a reminder that his experience isn't vast. From the minute he was on the field Wednesday, he was ready to take another step in that maturation process.
"This is my first real opportunity to pitch a full year," Strasburg said. "I've learned a lot so far, [but] I know there's plenty more to learn. It's just all about just trying to keep moving forward and not really stress when it doesn't go your way."
He did not nibble. He did not try to paint. He showed the Mets his best stuff and dared them to hit it. For the most part, they could not. With a fastball he threw 71.3 percent of the time (compared to 62.4 percent entering the game) and a changeup that was freezing hitters, only six balls made it out of the infield. And the only one that caused damage was a first-pitch fastball that Ike Davis crushed for a solo home run in the second inning.
Buoyed by back-to-back home runs from Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa in the second, a two-run homer from Adam LaRoche in the seventh and a smattering of other offense that continued to build him a cushion, Davis' homer was a mere blip on Strasburg's day.
"The stuff is still electric, but his ability to pitch is incredible," said reliever Drew Storen, who got the Nationals out of their only jam in a messy eighth that featured four relievers and three walks, including two to open the frame by Henry Rodriguez.
"He puts any pitch he wants wherever he wants it, and it's a striking resemblance to [2011 American League MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander]. That's what's really fun to watch and you kind of take it for granted. ... He makes it looks so casual."
The Nationals continued to put nails in the Mets' coffin — New York has lost 12 of 13 since the All-Star break — though Atlanta remained 4½ games back.
They headed to Milwaukee for a chance to move 20 games over .500 for the first time in seven years. The last time the Nationals got this close they fell into a tailspin. Starting with their ace, they don't carry themselves in a way that indicates that type of history will repeat itself.
"We know we're good," Morse said. "That's what it comes down to. Our pitching's really good. Hitters are doing their jobs. So why not have confidence? Why not have a little swagger?"
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