- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2012

After waiting what seemed like an eternity, Stephen Strasburg finally got his chance to take the mound again. As he jogged out to the field at Nationals Park on Sunday, ready to take on the division-rival Miami Marlins, he couldn’t help but remember his last outing.

Five days before, the Nationals returned home from a road trip looking for their ninth win in 10 games against the Philadelphia Phillies. What they got instead was a shutout loss and an outing from their ace that might go down as his worst of the season.

“Four days in between felt like a long time,” he said. “I was just trying to not over-analyze things and move forward.”

In Washington’s 4-1 win Sunday, Strasburg got far, far away from that former version of himself. But he didn’t just make up for past mistakes on the mound.

Strasburg (12-5) allowed just three hits and struck out six in six innings. But his contribution from the plate might have been even grander. With two men on base in the second inning, Strasburg singled to center field, driving home both runs and giving Washington a lead it would never relinquish.

His teammates breathed a sigh of relief as they once again saw the Strasburg they are used to seeing. First baseman Adam LaRoche said he could tell the ace was back to normal the moment he walked into the dugout Sunday morning.

“We could all sense that there was a little different attitude there,” LaRoche said. “I don’t know if it was something to prove to himself that he still had it or to be able to bounce back from the last one, whatever it was.”

In Washington’s 8-0 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday, Strasburg, allowed eight hits and six earned runs, including two homers. He averages almost six innings per start. But on that day, he only lasted four.

Manager Davey Johnson said his pitcher’s series of up-and-down outings is simply evidence of a young pitcher learning about himself and the system. To Johnson, that’s all part of the process.

“He’s very cognizant of every little thing that doesn’t go the way he plans,” Johnson said. “This year, getting 30 starts or whatever, it’s like money in the bank.”

After Strasburg’s two-run single jump-started the offense in the second inning, Marlins starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco (9-10) walked Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper singled to right field. LaRoche added a base hit moments later to drive in two more runs for the Nationals.

Strasburg, who came out of Sunday’s game batting .343, is far and away the best hitting pitcher for Washington, and maybe even the National League. Strasburg’s teammates joke that he could be used as a designated hitter in the future. But the stone-faced ace downplayed his value at the plate.

“[I’m] just trying to not strike out every time,” he said. “It’s big when you have a pitcher in the lineup that can handle the bat.

“I’m just focusing on pitching right now, and if I can get a bunt down or slap one into the hole, then it’s a big plus for me.”

Strasburg is his own biggest critic. When he has a bad outing, he does whatever he can to rectify the situation the next time he goes out. Sunday, he did just that on the mound and at the plate.

Coming off a win, Strasburg won’t have the same motivation when he jogs back out for his 23nd start of the season later this week.

Next time there won’t be a need to pick up the pieces from a disappointing performance. But the urge to show exactly what he’s made of will always be there.

“I feel like I need to prove something every single day,” he said.

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