- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2012

The first roar came because a tie had been broken. In a game that looked as good as lost early, even with their ace on the mound, the Washington Nationals had clawed their way back. Jesus Flores’ solo home run to right-center field was the proof.

But the second roar — the one that got all 41,918 in attendance at Nationals Park on a sun-splashed Sunday on their feet, regardless of which side of the Beltway their loyalties lie — that one was for Stephen Strasburg.

The Washington right-hander, used to being showered in cheers for his pitching, was stone-faced, not even appearing to stifle a smile, as he slowly rounded the bases. His first career home run, one of the back-breaking blows in a 9-3 Nationals victory over the Baltimore Orioles, was rolling around in the visitors’ bullpen in left field while his teammates reveled in the pandemonium.

“Oh my gosh,” said outfielder Bryce Harper. “That was awesome.”


Said first baseman Adam LaRoche: “We were trying to figure out if he was running full-speed or if that was his trot. Not that I’m one to talk.”

Strasburg stoically made his way into the dugout, accepting high-fives, and obliged the fans when they pleaded for a curtain call. Third base coach Bo Porter joked to manager Davey Johnson that the team may have found its left fielder. Shortstop Ian Desmond, who’d caught Strasburg earlier checking the scoreboard to see if his first hit, a single to right field, was scored a hit or an error, sidled up to him. “Hey,” Desmond said. “You’re 2 for 2.”

“I got a little bit of a chuckle out of him,” Desmond said, considering it a victory.

The Nationals’ offense awoke with a vengeance, tired of waiting until the late innings to mount an attack. They jumped on Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen for three in the second, two in the fourth and one in the fifth. They had base runners in every inning but the second and sixth and tacked on three runs in the eighth, two via a Danny Espinosa home run.

They helped Strasburg overcome a shaky start as he needed 51 pitches to get through the first two innings and dealt with what Johnson termed “tightness in his bicep.” When Johnson noticed the right-hander trying to loosen his arm after the fifth inning, he pulled him.

“I don’t care who it was, when I find out they’ve got a little tightness in there and they’re worried about it, they’re out,” Johnson said. “But I talked to him later on in the game, and he said it relaxed a little bit and he felt a lot better. I’m not as concerned when I heard it’s in the bicep.”

Strasburg, who called his home run “shocking,” downplayed the issue, pointing to some extra work he did in the bullpen and the weight room between starts as he seethed over his previous outing, a 6-1 loss to San Diego on Tuesday. And he was markedly better from the third inning on, so it would be difficult to make the argument that it truly affected him. After Xavier Avery’s RBI single to left in the second, Strasburg set down the last 10 batters he faced, seven via strikeout.

“It wasn’t my bicep,” he said. “It had nothing to do with my elbow or anything. Just normal fatigue. It’s nothing different than any other outing. It’s something that it’s going to be like this for probably the rest of the year. It’s just part of coming back from Tommy John [surgery].”

Another part that, perhaps, no one considered as Strasburg made his return to the majors so seamlessly and so dominantly. He gave up three runs but only one earned, two scoring in a second inning that featured a dropped ball in by center fielder Harper and a passed ball. But he also pitched well enough for the Nationals’ offense, keyed by Harper’s two-run triple in the third, to pick him up.

“I think if we can jump-start our offense a little bit early in the game, it’ll help our pitching and let them cruise through a game,” Harper said. “I think being able to put nine runs on the board today and have every guy in the lineup swinging well is huge for us. It’s really going to be a jump-start for us this week and going into Philly, Atlanta and Miami.”