Nights like this, when Stephen Strasburg takes complete ownership of a baseball game and renders any opposing lineup (no matter the talent within it) helpless, can leave you with mixed emotions.
Yes, this kind of performance — 12 strikeouts, zero walks, one run allowed over seven innings — causes a crowd of 37,115 to rise as one and cheer every third strike and salute the right-hander with a lengthy ovation when he departs the mound for good. But it also causes those same people to turns wistful, to have those “what-if?” feeling crop up and lament what might’ve been had Strasburg been able to do this on a more-regular basis.
Thing is, this win over the Rockies didn’t come out of the thin-blue sky. Strasburg has done this plenty of times in his career. Actually, more often than not. Shoot, he was doing it before his season was derailed by another DL stint five weeks ago.
Bet you didn’t realize that over his last four starts — three before he strained his left oblique muscle, plus Saturday’s return in a 6-1 victory over Colorado — Strasburg is now 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, 30 strikeouts and four walks. Bet the sight of him taking the mound for the first time since July 4 left you fearing the worst, not expecting the best.
Strasburg’s teammates know you feel that way. They just don’t understand why.
“I think for some reason, people have always been very hard on him no matter what,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “If he does well, it’s not good enough. If he does bad, then it’s kind of like the ‘I-told-you-so’ thing. This guy, he’s the worst best pitcher I’ve ever seen in my life. This guy gets no credit for what he’s done since he basically came out. To see him throw the ball like that, that was fun to watch.”
Indeed, it was. And it should offer everyone ample reason to believe there’s plenty more of it still to come.
Strasburg looked nothing like a pitcher coming off a month-long DL stint, nor one who entered with a 5.16 ERA and serious questions about his standing in the bigger picture. He looked like a guy who has been in a groove for weeks, not on the shelf.
His fastball command was spot-on, with 78 percent of those pitches thrown for strikes. His changeup was effective enough, if occasionally off-target. And his curveball was devastating, a knee-buckler that accounted for five of his 12 strikeouts.
“He’s one of the best in baseball when he’s out there doing his thing,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “Painting 98 on the black, reaching 99 sometimes … great curveball, good changeup … he’s got four ‘plus’ pitches. He’s very good out there, and when he’s in control he’s unhittable.”
For all his struggles at times earlier this season, Strasburg was still consistently throwing the ball hard, striking batters out and limiting walks. His 9.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate is right in line with his career standards. His 2.4 walks-per-nine-innings rate also falls right in line.
Strasburg just was giving up more hits than he usually does, struggling with his fastball command and perhaps his pitch selection at times.
“I feel like my feel for my pitches has always been there,” he said. “I think it’s just knowing what I want to do with it in certain spots. I’ve just been working hard and continually preparing as much as I can for these guys, and trying to have a good game plan.”
The plan worked to perfection Saturday night, not only on the mound but at the plate. A one-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Strasburg stepped up to bat for the first time with a goose egg for the season in 16 at-bats. He wound up going 3-for-3, raising his season batting average a mere 158 points.
“He can really hit!” manager Matt Williams said with a big smile when he thought about Strasburg’s outing.
It was a night that warranted plenty of smiles. The Nationals coasted to an easy victory. The Mets actually lost a game for the first time in nine days, bringing their lead in the NL East down to 1 1/2 games.
And the man who has been an enigma much of the season showed everyone once again just what he can be, and what he could mean to this club down the stretch.
“It’s definitely been an up-and-down year and it’s been a huge learning experience,” Strasburg said. “I’m excited to have another opportunity and go out tomorrow and get ready for the next one.”
You should be excited about it, too.