As Stephen Strasburg made his way up the dugout steps in the ninth inning Sunday evening, the roar for the Washington Nationals' right-hander began. For all of the feats Strasburg has accomplished in his young, promising career, he had never done this as a major leaguer.
The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," Strasburg's walk-up song — traditionally only played before the start of the game — blared through the speakers. The 32,355 in attendance came to their feet. Chants of "Let's go Strasburg!" cascaded from the upper decks.
Catcher Wilson Ramos looked Strasburg in the eye. "Let's go," he said. "Finish it up."
In the Nationals' 6-0 sweep-clinching victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, Strasburg was masterful. He needed just 99 pitches to secure the first shutout, and first complete game of any kind, of his professional career. In doing so, he delivered his finest performance of the season. He allowed just four hits, struck out 10 and walked only one. In getting 27 outs, he faced only 29 batters.
"What a great job," said manager Davey Johnson, who was forced to watch the final two innings from the training room, where he retreated with excruciating back pain. "I said [to my coaches], 'If you guys mess this up, come get me. I'll come back down. ... But you expect more of those from him, with his talent."
"That's something I tried to set out doing at the start of the season here," Strasburg said. "And I knew it was only going to be a matter of time where I was going to have one of those games where they hit it right to where we were playing and the defense made great plays."
And just as Strasburg dazzled, sending the Phillies' batters back to the dugout muttering to themselves, his offense provided him with more than enough support. Undergoing an offensive renaissance this weekend, the Nationals rapped out 13 hits and scored 23 runs in the three-game set.
For all of the Nationals' warts these past few weeks, all of the losses that have dimmed their playoff hopes, the Phillies, who have just three wins since the All-Star break, have many more issues. Strasburg made them look even worse.
He had struck out five after three innings, and eight after five. When six scoreless innings were in the books, Strasburg had nine strikeouts and had used only 72 pitches. An eight-pitch eighth inning set him up to begin the ninth at 90 pitches.
In the three previous times he had pitched even eight innings, Strasburg had required 118, 117 and 112 pitches. His efficiency was breathtaking.
"I looked up there, it might have been the sixth, and saw a low pitch count," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who left the game with a banged-up right knee after a hard slide at home plate but said he would be fine. "I was happy for him. Too often, him and [Gio Gonzalez], you look up there and going into the fourth inning and they've got 60-some pitches.
"You play long enough, you see these guys who are top-end pitchers, some of the best in the game, and that's what they do. They control the game. I think as Stras gets older, he'll learn to do that a little bit more. Not only is it good for them but it's good for the team. It saves the bullpen."
There wasn't a single ball thrown in the Nationals' bullpen Sunday. At one point, bullpen coach Jim Lett moved over toward the phone, but the relievers quickly shooed him away.
A momentary scare, a 2-0 pitch that went to the backstop in the second inning and was followed by an obvious wince, brought Nationals head trainer Lee Kuntz, pitching coach Steve McCatty and Johnson out to check on him. He'd tweaked his groin, they learned, but it only bothered him when he flew open in his delivery.
"It was scary," Johnson said. "But if he didn't fly open, it didn't bother him. Obviously, it didn't bother him."
"That just helped me kind of take a step back," Strasburg said. "Just go nice and easy and stay on-line as long as I can."
Otherwise, he dazzled. He struck the Phillies out in all kinds of ways. They flailed at fastballs, curveballs, change-ups.
Darin Ruf took him to 10 pitches in the fifth inning, and Strasburg ran the first nine pitches as follows: curveball, fastball, curveball, fastball, curveball, sinker, fastball, curveball. When Ruf was still standing there after that barrage, Strasburg threw him a change-up on the 10th pitch. Ruf swung through it.
"Going deep in games, low pitch counts, striking out that number, instead of going up and trying to miss the bats, he was pretty much saying, 'Here, hit it,'" Johnson said. "Which is great."
"Today, he was a horse," Ramos said, praising Strasburg for his aggressiveness. "He fought all game. All nine innings."
Four days ago, the Nationals' season reached a nadir. Swept by the Atlanta Braves, their chances to repeat as division champions appeared slim, if still present at all. They fielded questions about whether or not they'd need to combat the feeling of resignation.
But in the three games since the Nationals have played little like the team that came into the series a season-high six games below .500, but far more like the one that won 98 games just a year ago.
Never was that on better display than in the three-run fifth, when they loaded the bases with no outs, and watched Werth and Ian Desmond, displaying alert base-running, score on a hard grounder to second that the Phillies muffed on the play at home. Five of their eight starting position players posted multihit games, and seven of them reached base at least once.
As third baseman Ryan Zimmerman went airborne to his right to snag the game's final out they, celebrated all of it.
"We're scoring runs and getting timely hitting," Werth said. "Really, the approach and the atmosphere in the dugout and in the clubhouse has been different. It's been better. Hopefully we can build on that. We're in striking distance. We got a long, hard road ahead of us."
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