PHILADELPHIA — To the observer watching from afar, Stephen Strasburg's absolute gem of a pitching performance Tuesday night might have seemed to emerge from nowhere. Strasburg throwing a 1-hitter? On 14 strikeouts? The same guy whose career appeared to be teetering on the brink earlier this summer?
Anyone who has been watching Strasburg over the last couple of months, though, probably wasn't shocked by Tuesday's dominant start in a 4-0 win over the Phillies. Truth be told, it felt like a natural progression for the right-hander, who had been building toward something just like this.
It's been lost among the nagging injuries and the Nationals' overall frustrations, but Strasburg has been pitching as well as at any previous point in his career. His totals over his last 10 starts, dating all the way back to June 23: 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA, an 0.74 WHIP, 79 strikeouts and only nine walks in 61 innings.
The reason for all that? It's simple, in Strasburg's mind: He's finally healthy.
"I think health is huge for anybody," he said. "We've had a lot of guys battle through injuries and stuff. It's been a good learning process for me. Even going back to spring training, it helped me kind of get a better understanding of where I need to have my body to go out there and execute pitches that I need to."
Strasburg dealt with all sorts of nagging ailments through the season's first half. A minor ankle sprain suffered in spring training led to poor mechanics, which led to his recurring neck and back issues. An oblique strain suffered July 4 knocked him out another month.
At long last, though, his body feels right. And the end result has been utter dominance. He struck out 12 batters in his Aug. 8 return from the DL. He struck out 13 batters last week against the Mets. And Tuesday night he one-upped that by striking out 14 Phillies, matching the career high he established in his memorable MLB debut five years ago.
This was, by multiple measurements, the best start of Strasburg's career. He allowed only one hit (Cody Asche's sharp single through the right side of the infield in the fifth inning). He walked only one batter. He struck out 14. He induced 30 swings and misses, only the third MLB pitcher to do that in the last decade (along with Clayton Kershaw and Johan Santana).
His "Game Score" of 93 was a career best, and fifth-best in Nationals history, trailing only Max Scherzer's no-hitter and 1-hitter from earlier this year and Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter and 2-hit shutout from last year. Had he been allowed to pitch the ninth and recorded two more strikeouts, he would have matched Scherzer's 100 "Game Score" in Milwaukee from June.
"He was dominant tonight," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "Filthy changeup. That's probably one of the best, if not the best, pitched games I've seen all year."
Andres Blanco, Philadelphia's veteran infielder, compared Strasburg to one of the most-feared pitchers in baseball history: "Nolan Ryan. I saw that on TV when I was a kid. Whew."
It may feel like too little too late for a Nationals club that has all but mathematically been eliminated from the NL East race. But if nothing else, it's further evidence that Strasburg's maddening struggles earlier this season weren't the beginning of the end for the right-hander.
Turns out Stephen Strasburg is just fine after all, and there may still be plenty more nights like this ahead for him and the Nationals.
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