- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

There was a time when Stephen Strasburg’s starts were accompanied by a mix of excitement and fear. Excitement over what he might do on any given night on the mound. Fear, for what might happen while he’s doing it.

But now, nearly 22 months removed from Tommy John surgery, the predominant feeling for the Washington Nationals when Strasburg takes the mound is comfort.

Strasburg has taken the ball after the Nationals have lost three or more consecutive games four times this season. Wednesday night, the fourth of those occasions, Strasburg helped the Nats beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2, snapping the team’s four-game losing streak.

Occasionally, he shirks away from the term “stopper.” “I’m one guy in the rotation,” he said Wednesday night. “Everybody’s capable of going out there and getting the job done.” But even without the label, he’s assumed the role. He has a 9-1 record, and six of his wins, to go along with a 2.46 ERA, have come on the day after a loss.

On a sweat-soaked day at Nationals Park where drama swirled from one manager’s office to the other and a war of words over written and unwritten rules raged, Strasburg stood on the mound amid the noise and silenced it. Seven innings, five hits, two walks and 10 strikeouts.

When his offense abandoned him after the first inning — getting no-hit by Chris Archer, who was making his major league debut and had given up three runs in the first inning, as well as the two relievers who followed— Strasburg only turned the heat higher.

“He’s a true No. 1,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “And he’s still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him.”

If his career arc is anything like his game Wednesday night, that will hold true. Strasburg served up a 2-0 fastball to Jose Molina for a home run in the second inning. He allowed three straight batters to reach with two outs in the third, Hideki Matsui’s single driving in a run before he struck out Ben Zobrist to end it.

But that was the start of a stretch in which Strasburg would set down 13 of the next 15 batters. He got help from Steve Lombardozzi, who snared Molina’s sinking liner in the sixth with the tying run on second base to end the inning, and Bryce Harper, who kept Desmond Jennings’ fifth-inning single in front of him by nabbing it on a short-hop after missing on a dive.

No one was warming as Strasburg, at 98 pitches, was sent back out to start the seventh. The finish line, he knew, was in sight. He hit 98 mph on pitches Nos. 110 and 111, striking out Jennings to end the frame and his night with an exclamation mark.

“I can’t explain that,” Strasburg said, asked about a quality only few — including Tigers ace Justin Verlander —possess where they can get better and stronger as the game goes on. “That’s how I’ve always been. Even in college my best innings were seven, eight and nine when I’d go nine innings. I think it’s just getting a feel for the game, getting settled in and getting a feel for your pitchers. They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going.”

“Stras is just unbelievable on the bump,” Harper said. “He’s a specimen out there.”

The ending was a far cry from the beginning, too. In about as inauspicious a start as Strasburg could have, he finished throwing his warm-up tosses, received the ball and was greeted with a mound visit by home plate umpire Jeff Nelson. After Joel Peralta was ejected for having “a significant amount” of pine tar in his glove Tuesday night, Strasburg was prepared.

“Stras was getting ready to undress,” Johnson said. “He was ready to take everything off and let them search him.” But Nelson only wanted to make sure the ball wasn’t scuffed, as catcher Jesus Flores had bounced in the dirt on his final warm-up throw to second base.

“You’re kind of expecting some sort of stuff to happen,” Strasburg said. “Especially the game yesterday, but nothing really.”

Strasburg’s season will not last as long as his teammates’. If he’s on a similar schedule to that of Jordan Zimmermann’s in 2011, with 84 innings already in the book this year, he’s just over the half-way point to his innings limit for the season. In those 84 innings, he has struck out 110 batters, and he’s walked just 22.

And with each start that comes after a Nationals’ loss, he asserts himself as their ace once more.

“There’s games where I’ve felt lights out,” Strasburg said. “At the same time, there’s been games where I’ve had to go out there and battle, where the hitters have really made me have to execute pitches and make the pitch when it mattered. I’ve been able to do that so far, so I’m just going to keep trying to do that. If it doesn’t happen, you’ve just got to turn the page.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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