Stephen Strasburg sat at his locker and stared straight ahead.
His right arm and shoulder were wrapped in athletic tape down to the elbow and a familiar gold cross hung from a chain on his neck. In front of him, on the TV screen, the Philadelphia Phillies were leading the Atlanta Braves, potentially widening the Nationals‘ lead in the National League pennant race.
Strasburg watched, stone-faced.
A few hours earlier Sunday, he had propelled his team to a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in what manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo said was his penultimate start at Nationals Park.
Strasburg struck out nine in six scoreless innings to give him 156⅓ innings pitched on the season. The Nationals‘ brass said he will start two more games and then be shut down after a Sept. 12 contest against the New York Mets.
“I think we all realize that we had our parameters in place at the beginning of the season,” Rizzo said. “We have our philosophies, our protocols, and that seems like the right number of innings to end his season.
“This is a developmental decision, and it ultimately falls on the doorstep of the general manager, and we’ve made it — we made it five months ago — and we’re going to stick to it.”
Strasburg took the mound in a light drizzle and started striking out batters. Two in the first inning, two in the second. One in the third, two in the fifth. He departed with nine strikeouts, giving him a National League-best 195 on the season.
The most-talked about arm in Washington looked as strong as ever Sunday.
“Stras was good,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “For a younger guy, he’s real mature and confident in himself, and he knew he was going to go out there and do well today. You guys saw the Strasburg that you usually see.”
Suzuki gave Strasburg help at the plate by driving in two runs and helping prevent another. He applied the tag on a laser from outfielder Bryce Harper in the fourth inning to keep the Cardinals off the board. He also homered in his following at-bat and drove in the Nationals‘ second run with a single in the sixth.
The story still was Strasburg, however. After allowing five earned runs in his last outing, at Miami, the Nationals‘ ace rebounded by fanning five of his first 10 batters and often tipping 97 mph on the radar gun.
It was the fifth time in six starts in which Strasburg has struck out six or more, a performance that only lent more ammunition to fans and pundits who have criticized the Nationals‘ plan to shut him down.
The team said at the beginning of the season Strasburg would be shut down after pitching between 160 and 180 innings. Rizzo and Johnson lent some clarity to the situation after Sunday’s game, explaining that Strasburg will make two more starts but that “stressful innings” and pitch counts could also alter that plan.
The Nationals took three of four from the defending World Series champion Cardinals and have matched a D.C.-high with 81 wins, the most since the first campaign in Washington in 2005. At their current pace, they would surpass even the Montreal Expos’ franchise record of 95 wins set in 1979. To get there, they will have to win without Strasburg on the mound every fifth game.
“We know that we’re a good ballclub, and we’ve got good pitching top to bottom,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We feel good with anybody on the mound.”
Strasburg said he had not spoken with Johnson or Rizzo about Sept. 12 as a potential shutdown date but that, “we’re going to have to have a sit-down and talk here soon.” When asked what that conversation would entail, Strasburg didn’t say.
“I don’t think he’s going to fight me on it,” Rizzo said. “I think he’s going to be unhappy about it. I know he’ll be unhappy about it. He’s an ultimate competitor, but we’ve taken that out of his hands.”
Strasburg stared straight ahead as he spoke to members of the media after the game, the Braves game — which Atlanta rallied to win — still blaring on the television set behind him. He didn’t turn to face reporters who asked him a question. He didn’t flinch.
“I’m just focused on the next start. That’s all I can really focus on right now,” he said. “I’m here with these guys, and we’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m going to fight with them ‘til the end.”