- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2015

Saturday afternoon, before his team’s game against the Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams was asked how he would potentially bridge the gap between Stephen Strasburg, making his first start off the disabled list, and closer Jonathan Papelbon.

“You lay the game out and say, ‘Well, hopefully, Stephen gets out there and goes eight and we can turn it over to Pap and it’s all clean and simple,’” Williams said. “The problem is, it’s not always like that.”

A lot of things haven’t been clean or simple for Williams and the Nationals this year, including Strasburg’s performance and the health problems that sent him into the game with a 5-5 record and 5.16 ERA. When Strasburg took the mound Saturday, returning from a strained left oblique, everything seemed to fall into place.

Playing in the majors for the first time since July 4 in a 6-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies, Strasburg collected as many hits as he allowed. He tossed seven innings and allowed only one run on three hits and no walks while striking out 12. He threw 65 of his 91 pitches for strikes. He was 3-for-3 at the plate — the only Nationals player, it seemed, who had any luck sending balls in the direction of Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who vacuumed up hits to the left side all night except when those hit by Strasburg dropped in front of or skipped past him.

“I just have personal expectations for myself every time, and I can’t really worry about when the last time I pitched in this setting was,” Strasburg said. “I just want to go out there and compete and leave it all out there on the field. … It has definitely been an up-and-down year, and it’s been a huge learning experience, so I’m excited to have another opportunity and go out tomorrow and get ready for the next one.”

Strasburg’s fastball sat in the mid- to high-90s, frequently hitting 97, but his curveball and changeup were especially deadly.

He worked around a leadoff double to Charlie Blackmon in the first inning, retiring Jose Reyes and Carlos Gonzalez before ending the inning with his first strikeout of the night. Fastballs at 97 and 98 mph helped Strasburg drive the count to 2-2 against Arenado before he struck him out with a curveball at 83 mph.

As soon as Strasburg got back on the mound, he struck out the Rockies next two batters. He got Ben Paulsen on four pitches, bookending his curveball with fastballs at 96 mph. He got DJ LeMahieu in a two-strike count with his fastball and sent him packing with the curve for his third consecutive strikeout. Nick Hundley then popped out to end the inning, which Strasburg got through in 10 pitches.

“I left a changeup up to Blackmon and he put a good swing on it, and then after that, I was just trying to turn the page and just keep pitching,” Strasburg said. “Obviously, it was the first inning, so you just want to go out there and continue to settle in and do what you can but not try and be who you’re not and try and strike everybody out.”

But strike everybody out is what he did, and as Strasburg retired LeMahieu, his last batter of the night, swinging on a nasty curve, he collected his 12th strikeout in a game without walking a batter for just the third time in his career. Strasburg’s ERA fell to 4.76 over the course of the game.

“That’s the best I’ve seen him look in a long time, so hopefully, this kind of bad luck he’s been having where he’s had these little things is — it stinks to see that happen to someone who works as hard as he does — but hopefully, he can get rid of those things and be that guy for the next two and a half months,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “That was special.”

All of that meant that entering the eighth inning with a five-run lead, Williams didn’t even have to go to Papelbon. Right around the time when the New York Mets were ending their seven-game winning streak, Williams sent Blake Treinen to relieve Strasburg, who Williams said could have gone back out if the game had been closer.

But there was no need. Treinen retired three consecutive batters in the eighth, and Matt Thornton did the same in the ninth to get the 6-1 win. And, for once, things were all clean and simple.

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