NEW YORK — The pitch was a 96 mph fastball, down, on the inner third of the plate. It was a strike, by the definition of the word. Strike 3, actually. But home plate umpire Larry Vanover called it a ball. Stephen Strasburg was not pleased.
Ruben Tejada smacked the next pitch to center field for a single. A few words in Vanover’s direction came from the mound.
“I felt like I missed my spot a little,” Strasburg explained later. “But I still felt like it was a quality pitch.”
The fourth four-pitch walk of his career followed.
“I almost tried to force it a little too much,” Strasburg said, his command admittedly not as impeccable as usual in the first inning. “I think in my head I was saying, ‘Pound the zone, pound the zone.’ “
The wildness, the appearance of being rattled, even the exchange with Vanover, was decidedly un-Strasburg. But what came after it in the Nationals’ 4-0 victory over the New York Mets was - dominance. As Johnson is fond of saying, “vintage” Strasburg, and it included the Nationals’ ace throwing more than 100 pitches for the first time in his professional career.
“He’s just one of the guys now,” Johnson said, knowing that Strasburg jumped that benchmark while being allowed to work his way out of a jam in the sixth inning, his pitch count climbing and his team clinging to a one-run lead.
“I’m going to handle him just like he’s perfectly healthy,” Johnson said. “I’d have probably had to strangle him to get ahold of the ball to get it out of his hand. I didn’t want to fight him on the mound.”
The Washington Nationals are 4-2, even with an offense that stranded 14 runners Wednesday. A win in their home opener Thursday would put them three games over .500 for the first time since May 15, 2010.
And while Johnson, Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty brushed off breaking the 100-pitch mark as a footnote, the symbolism of allowing him to remain in the game spoke for itself.
Even before Tommy John surgery, Strasburg likely would not have stayed in Wednesday.
“In that situation, there was never a thought of taking him out,” said McCatty, who visited after pitch No. 102. “There’s a different way of the managers managing the game. I’m not saying [Jim Riggleman, Johnson’s predecessor] was wrong, but I believe the pitcher has got to throw pitches. If you’re going to start throwing benchmarks at 100 or whatever, you’re setting yourself up for problems.
“Read with your eyes. When you sit there and watch somebody throw, you don’t look at the mark of 100. You see what you see. That’s what Davey does.”
If not for Vanover’s missed call in the first, the Nationals’ ace would have been throwing a no-hitter until a one-out hit by Ike Davis in the sixth inning on that 102nd pitch. Sean Burnett was warming. McCatty visited. Runners were on first and second. Strasburg struck out Jason Bay and coaxed Josh Thole to fly out to center. Inning over.
“I didn’t know who to go to get him out of a jam,” Johnson conceded. “So I left him out there. I know he wouldn’t have liked to have left some runners on there that could have given him the ‘L’ so, I let him go. It’s that simple.”
One day, it won’t matter for Strasburg. The goal, as he put it, is to throw 200 innings “year in, year out.” But he still needs to pass the benchmarks to get there. Wednesday, he did.