PITTSBURGH — When Stephen Strasburg is on the mound, his intensity ratchets up to a perilous level. Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson jokes that he doesn’t like to go near Strasburg in the dugout during his starts, afraid of what the 23-year-old right-hander will do or say if he does.
Dominance that reached near-record levels as the Pittsburgh Pirates swung through pitch after pitch devolved into uncharacteristic wildness in the sixth inning Thursday night. After three straight two-out walks had loaded the bases and threatened the Nationals‘ painstakingly-earned one-run lead, Strasburg glared in at Garrett Jones.
Jones had faced Strasburg five times in his career before that moment. He’d struck out in four of those at-bats and grounded into a double play in the other. So what, then, was the strategy for the Nationals‘ ace against a hitter he so clearly dominated?
Jones could not. He flailed at 2-2 fastball. He became Strasburg’s 13th strikeout of the evening and the Nationals‘ phenom walked casually off the mound having allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits and three walks. The game was his to win or lose. As probably all of the 15,381 in attendance figured, he won it.
“As you noticed,” Johnson said, “I didn’t have nobody warming up.”
The Nationals needed that intensity Thursday night. After a three-game losing streak that reached its depth on Wednesday and prompted Johnson to summon his team for a meeting Thursday afternoon, they needed Strasburg to play stopper, even if he didn’t see it that way.
“You guys can put me in that role all you want,” Strasburg said. “But I’m going to sit here and say that there’s four other guys in this rotation that can do it, too.”
The truth is, as the Nationals scuffled, their pitching staff never wavered. Their starters continued to make opposing hitters look foolish and allowed their usually-anemic offense to occasionally come alive. They just weren’t. In the last 17 games, Washington’s starters have thrown 16 quality starts. The Nationals are 9-8 in that span.
So as Strasburg mowed down the Pirates, striking out more batters than he had in his career outside of his electric, 14-strikeout debut against the same team, it was difficult for one thought not to pop into the mind of the Nationals‘ hitters: Don’t waste it.
“You get down a couple runs and I think that starts to creep in,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, his two-run homer one of the team’s three hits on the night, and the defining blow to give Washington a 3-2 lead in the sixth. “Don’t let this be another night where you miss some opportunities.”
The Nationals came to the plate in the top of the sixth down two runs and their starter already having fanned 11 Pirates. Roger Bernadina sent a 3-1 pitch into the back bullpen in center field, Ryan Zimmerman walked and LaRoche made Pirates starter Kevin Correia pay for it.
When Strasburg returned to the mound, he didn’t miss a beat. He got the first two batters of the sixth easily, but then lost the strike zone somewhat. “Just starting to nibble a little bit,” he said. “Trying to throw the perfect pitch.”
“You get used to seeing it,” LaRoche said. “You’ve got a guy that goes out there and throws the way he does every single fifth day, you kind of start to expect it.”