Even as Stephen Strasburg kept the Atlanta Braves lineup at bay throughout much of Thursday's 6-2 win, Nationals manager Dusty Baker could tell in between innings that his starter still wasn't feeling quite right.
"He came off [the mound] like he was close to needing mouth-to-mouth," Baker said. "I wasn't going to give it to him. I mean, he was struggling big time."
Strasburg, who missed his scheduled Wednesday start with flu-like symptoms, earned his second win of the season despite battling both illness and early command issues. Seemingly running on fumes, the 27-year-old right hander allowed just two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings while striking out seven.
"Big time," Baker said of the outing. "That was a gutsy performance. Because it didn't look like he had it [early on]."
Strasburg's condition was enough of a concern that there was doubt he'd start Thursday's matinee, with the Nats' skipper tapping reliever Yusmeiro Petit as his contingency plan just in case. But Strasburg let Baker know in the clubhouse a few hours before the game that he was going to be ready.
“I was going to go out there and give it everything I had and that’s what I told them," Strasburg said. "So whatever that was going to be, they were going to get it."
Strasburg explained that his body has a hard time adjusting from Vienna, Florida's warmer climate to D.C.'s chillier spring temperatures. However, he appeared to have to gained strength as the game wore on.
"It took a little while to settle in," he said. "Once the game got going I guess I sweated it out a little bit and started to lock in.”
Catcher Wilson Ramos said that Strasburg's fastball was out of the strike zone early on, so he had to rely on the rest of his arsenal to keep Braves' hitters off balance. That includes a newly-developed slider, a pitch Strasburg said previously that he's not utilizing despite the fact that opposing hitters, stadium scoreboard operators and even his own catcher are describing it as such.
"We mixed it up really well with the changeup, curveball and a slider," Ramos said. "Those secondary pitches help him to come back with his fastball. After that, he threw many fastballs really well."
Illness or not, Strasburg is off to a solid start to 2016, the final year he's under contract with the Nats. He's pitched as least six innings in each of his two starts (both against the Braves), compiling a 1.98 ERA with 11 strikeouts to four walks. And the hope for the Nats is that, like Thursday's effort, even an off-his-game Strasburg can prove to be just as effective as any starter in Washington's rotation.
"Being able to go out there and do what he did today, that's pretty special," outfielder Bryce Harper said. "He threw the crap out of it and really went about it the right way. He did what he needed to do."