- - Saturday, October 5, 2019


LOS ANGELES — He was marked with a scarlet letter before his career even truly began — the shutdown.

Stephen Strasburg was the 2009 No. 1 one draft pick who was defined early in his much-anticipated career when the Washington Nationals refused to let him pitch in the 2012 postseason, making the case they were protecting his elbow recovering from Tommy John surgery.

But much of the rest of the game saw a delicate flower that had wilted under pressure.

It’s safe to say that Strasburg has outgrown — and outpitched — that early characterization. 

These days, he looks more like a mighty postseason oak, turning in some of the best and most important playoff pitching performances of his time.

Friday night, when his team, down 1-0 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, needed one of those performances. Strasburg delivered, holding the Dodgers to one run over six innings and striking out 10 on the way to a 4-2 Washington win at Dodger Stadium.

The 1-1 series now shifts to Nationals Park for Game 3 Sunday night.

Max Scherzer — who pitched one inning of relief Friday night and who has worn the crown of the staff ace since he arrived in 2015, will take the mound.

That title may be up for debate — certainly when it comes to postseason baseball.

The 31-year-old Strasburg — a Cy Young candidate after posting an 18-6 record and striking out 251 batters this season — has made his case now in two straight appearances this postseason, starting with his three innings of shutout relief in Tuesday night’s comeback 4-3 wild card win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The turnaround for Strasburg’s reputation began two years ago in the division series against the Chicago Cubs.

With his team down 2-1, Strasburg reportedly begged out of starting Game 4 because of illness. It set off a firestorm of ridicule and questions about the pitcher’s heart and competitive spirit — already in doubt since the shutdown.

Strasburg recognized what was at stake, for him as well as his team. He walked into manager Dusty Baker’s office the next morning and said, “I want the ball.”

Then he went out and pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just three hits, and struck out a franchise postseason record 12 batters, leading Washington to a 5-0 win and tying the series. The Nationals would go on to lose Game 5 and the series, but Strasburg had won the hearts and minds of some of his critics with his performance.

Now, in these 2019 playoffs, he may have won over all of them.

You could make the case now that Strasburg — once vilified for not pitching in the playoffs — is putting together a record that ranks him among the premier postseason pitchers in the game.

In five postseason appearances, Strasburg has posted an 0.64 ERA.

That’s the third lowest ERA ever through five career postseason games — minimum 20 innings pitched, behind Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt from 1921-1922 (0.26 ERA) and Christy Mathewson from 1905-1911 (0.38 ERA).

Strasburg was asked about the arc of his career before his start Friday night.

“You have ups and downs and I think you learn to manage them a little bit better,” Strasburg said. “Just realize that at the end of the day when it’s all done, how do you want to look back on it. And really, it’s going out there and doing everything you can to be the best version of yourself.”

This is the best version of Stephen Strasburg. It is what everyone has been waiting for.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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