- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2012

The noise continued long after Stephen Strasburg’s day was done.

As the sun dipped behind Nationals Park on Saturday night, the stadium vibrated with the bass-soaked twang of Big and Rich’s postgame concert. Between songs, lead singer John Rich’s voice boomed from the makeshift stage covering second base.

“That pitcher,” Rich said, “good lord.”

There wasn’t much else to say after Strasburg returned to form after an uncharacteristic trio of starts and dominated the Atlanta Braves in a 2-0 win for the Washington Nationals.

“The way he finished off, he blew the guy away, I said, ‘He’s back,’” manager Davey Johnson said. “I don’t think he ever left. But in his mind he left.”

Then Johnson added in a fatherly voice: “Now we can live with him for the next four or five days.”

Twenty-eight starts into his career, Strasburg’s competitiveness is no secret. That’s why three previous starts bothered him. The right-hander’s command wavered for the first extended stretch in the big leagues. Seventeen hits, seven walks and nine earned runs came over 14 innings.

Hardly a slump by anything other than the near-impossible standard Strasburg set for himself.

“I think I expected a little too much out of myself and got away from what I wanted to do,” Strasburg said.

Then Strasburg took the mound Saturday after an extra day of rest because of Friday’s monsoon-out and promptly struck out the first four batters he faced. His plan was to attack. One of those victims, thanks to an 83-mile per hour curveball, was Dan Uggla. The Braves’ slugging second baseman and cleanup hitter has feasted off Strasburg: 6-for-8 with three extra-base hits and seven RBIs.

Strasburg changed that Saturday and left Uggla, according to Johnson, mouthing words the manager declined to repeat. Strasburg threw changeups in fastball counts and curveballs in changeup counts. The pitches seemed to carry a message. There was a video-game changeup to strike out Uggla a second time. Then Strasburg coaxed him to ground into a double-play in the seventh. Seven of the nine pitches Strasburg threw Uggla were strikes.

Those three at-bats showed, more than anything, the old Strasburg was back.

“He wasn’t going to give him anything to hit,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t pretty.”

Fifty-nine of Strasburg’s 90 pitches were strikes. The seven innings were the deepest he’s pitched into a game without allowing a run. Strasburg scattered four hits — none hit hard — and struck out nine without issuing a walk.

Strasburg’s adjustments were as low-key as his post-game interviews. Better pitch execution. Better mindset. And, of course, pound his 99-mph fastball inside all game long.

Strasburg could’ve pitched another inning; his fastball felt better with each inning. But Johnson is mindful of the innings limit attached to Strasburg’s right arm after in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

“That’s the Strasburg we all know and love,” Johnson said.

NOTES: In his first action of the season, Michael Morse started in right field and hit fifth, but grounded out to shortstop in all four at-bats (and twice broke his bat). “Every at-bat I felt more comfortable,” Morse said, then added a joke. “I was expecting 4-for-4 with four home runs and four grand slams.” … Tyler Clippard pitched the ninth for his fourth save, as Johnson continues to grow more comfortable using his one-time setup whiz to close.



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