As an out-of-nowhere cloudburst doused Nationals Park and a crowd of 33,388 during a 51-minute delay in the top of the third inning Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg did whatever he could to stay loose and ready to retake the mound should the skies part and this showdown with the Braves resume.
On the advice of pitching coach Steve McCatty, Strasburg went to the batting tunnel below the Nationals' dugout and threw about 15 pitches. Then he retreated to the clubhouse for a break. Then he returned to the tunnel for another 15 throws. Then back to the clubhouse for another break before finally both teams were summoned to the field for the resumption of play.
"It's my first time really dealing with the rain delay or anything," he said. "Cat kind of coached me through it."
The way he responded to the interruption, perhaps Strasburg should try to incorporate that new routine into all of his starts. He actually got better as the night went on, tossing six dominant innings to lead the Nationals to a 4-1 victory and a 7-game lead over its lone remaining challenger for the NL East crown.
"He was totally locked-in tonight," catcher Jesus Flores said, adding: "He was really even better after the delay for me. It was really fun to catch him tonight."
And really fun for that boisterous crowd to watch and cheer for every time he recorded a big out in perhaps the biggest game he's ever pitched (with all due respect to that NCAA regional he started for San Diego State in 2009).
Facing a desperate Atlanta club trying to not lose all hope of the division title before the calendar even shifts to September, Strasburg rose to the occasion. He struck out 10, including six of the 12 batters he faced after the delay. He located every one of his pitches with pinpoint accuracy, had left-handed hitters flailing helplessly at 91 mph change-ups in dirt and right-handed batters flinching on curveballs that wound up in the strike zone.
"He knows what he wants to do," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's had enough experience up here against good-hitting ballclubs that he knows exactly the sequence he wants to go in and where he wants to go with it."
Strasburg needed to be that precise most of his evening, because the Nationals held a slim, 1-0 margin through the top of the fifth, Ian Desmond's solo homer representing the lone tally to that point. It wasn't until Flores launched a three-run blast in the bottom of the fifth that the lead was extended to four runs and offered Strasburg some cushion.
With his starter's pitch count at 81, plus however many more tosses he threw in the cage during the delay, Johnson could have turned to his bullpen right then and there. Not that the 69-year-old skipper had any visions of doing that.
"I think the whole stadium -- if I'd have hooked him after five after he punched out the side -- they'd have been, or you guys would have been, wanting to string me up," Johnson said.
As it turned out, Strasburg gave up a run in the sixth after a double, a single and a sacrifice fly. But just when it appeared he might be in actual trouble, the right-hander was bailed out by his batterymate, who gunned down Jason Heyward trying to advance to second base on a pitch in the dirt.
Strasburg, an intense competitor but not one who typically shows his emotions on the field, offered up two fist pumps and then pointed and yelled at Flores to acknowledge the key play.
"I think it reminded me a lot of my debut out there, having the sellout crowd," Strasburg said of the overall environment. "It's great to be pitching for something. And I think you ask any of the guys in here, we're all in it together and we're giving it everything we have every day."
Three relievers (Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard) finished off the game for Strasburg, handing him his 15th win of the season and showing plenty of emotion themselves as they completed each of their innings down the stretch.
"It was huge," Clippard said of Strasburg's outing one night after a 13-inning marathon. "We needed six or seven from him tonight. ... He was unbelievable tonight. He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and that's what he showed tonight, especially in a big game like this."
Strasburg (now 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in August) will have the opportunity to pitch in a few more big games over the next couple of weeks, but he won't get the chance to pitch in the even bigger games that will come in late-September and perhaps beyond.
His innings total now up to 145 13, he's inching ever closer to the day when general manager Mike Rizzo informs him he's done for 2012.
Strasburg has no idea when that day will be. The Nationals are purposely not spelling out their precise plan so he doesn't start thinking about it.
So he just keeps taking the ball every fifth day, hoping to do whatever he can to help get the Nationals a step closer to their ultimate goal, blocking out all the hysteria around him.
"It's funny, nobody talks to me personally about it," he said. "So obviously I can either scour the internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."