Even before Sunday, it seemed likely that the Nationals would handle Stephen Strasburg with care in his first outing back from a 15-day disabled list stint.
But the performance he delivered in the Nats' 12-1 romp of the Cincinnati Reds was just dominant enough to test that approach, putting Dusty Baker in a classic managerial quandary: should Strasburg, who hadn't allowed a hit on 93 pitches through six shutout innings, be allowed to go for the no-hitter? Or is the risk of future injury not worth the reward?
As it turns out, history would take a backseat to health. Though Strasburg took the no-no through 6 2/3 innings, he had thrown 109 pitches — too many, in Baker's opinion, to keep going.
"It’s tough taking a guy out of a no-hitter," the manager said. "But we have to think about the future and where he had come from off the DL."
The call to remove Strasburg was antithetical to the popular notion that Baker has a tendency to overwork his starters. In this instance, it was clear that the pitch count was too high, so Strasburg didn't sound particularly disappointed that his manager opted to take the ball from him in the seventh.
"Yeah, I understand where he’s coming from," he said of Baker's decision. "There’s more important things, hopefully, down the road for this team."
Though hopes of a historically special outing were dashed, Strasburg's start saw him pick up right where he left off prior to suffering an upper back strain two weeks ago. Sunday's effort raised his record to 11-0, making him the first National League pitcher to accomplish the feat since Andy Hawkins did it in 1985.
"I felt pretty good," Strasburg said. "I just told myself today not to have too high expectations as far as execution and just really make it a point not make it affect the next one."
The 27-year-old right hander wasn't particularly overpowering out of the gate, looking erratic in the strike zone as he surrendered walks to two of the game's first three hitters. But that's about all the adversity he'd face against the Reds' lineup the rest of the way. In total, he registered four walks and while tallying five strikeouts.
"He settled in," Baker said. "He threw an outstanding game. We were trying ot get him through the seventh, but his pitch count got kind of high, especially his first time out there."
When Strasburg was first placed on the DL a week ago, there was a fear among some fans that the effects of his injury could linger well past his return to the rotation. But if Sunday was any indication, it appears the Nats' best starter this season is back to his old ways.
"It was awesome to see him come off the DL and see him throw like that," Danny Espinosa said. "He’s a huge part of this team and a huge part of a reason why we win.”