US Presswire photo
Steve Lombardozzi had plenty to smile about after going 4-for-5.
Fortunately for Strasburg, the entire Nationals dugout realized what had just happened and was determined to put its young ace back in line for the win.
"Oh, for sure," second baseman Steve Lombardozzi said. "He pitched his butt off again. You always want to try and get those runs back for your starting pitcher, as well as he pitched tonight."
It's one thing to think it. It's another to actually go out there and do it the way Lombardozzi and his teammates did during a stirring, four-run rally in the bottom of the sixth that immediately put the Nationals back on top and on course to close out a 6-3 victory that ensured this team would remain alone in first place for the fifth consecutive day.
"They had the momentum," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "And for us to strike back, not only for two but to get two more, widen the gap even further, that gets the momentum back on our side. It's a big part of baseball."
It's certainly a big part of winning baseball, and on this night it helped ensure Strasburg would be rewarded for what turned out to be a very good, not quite great, pitching performance.
Making his first home start of the season, the 23-year-old ace cruised through his first five innings, keeping the Astros from scoring and keeping his pitch count to a minimum thanks to a devastating curveball that accounted for three of his five strikeouts.
But Strasburg hit a bump in the road in the sixth, putting three straight batters on to load the bases with nobody out and leave himself in a precarious situation, with no margin for error.
He nearly pitched his way out of that jam. He got Carlos Lee to fly out to medium center field, giving Rick Ankiel a chance to show off his left arm with a perfect, 300-foot laser to catcher Wilson Ramos -- "I would have called it a strike, that's for sure," Strasburg joked -- and then struck out Travis Buck on a 95 mph fastball.
But needing one more strike to escape the inning unscathed, Strasburg served up a two-out, two-run single to Chris Johnson that left the hurler wondering if he had tipped his pitch or perhaps revealing his grip to a runner standing on second base.
"I think it was more when guys would get in scoring position that I felt like they definitely were kind of seeing pitches a little differently," he said. "I don't think I was throwing any pitches worse or with different kind of movement. But they definitely seemed a little bit more comfortable with guys on second base."
With his pitch count suddenly at 93 and his spot in the lineup coming up in the bottom of the inning, Strasburg's night came to an unceremonious end. His teammates, though, ensured it wouldn't all go for naught, loading the bases with two outs against Houston starter Kyle Weiland and bringing Lombardozzi to the plate for perhaps the biggest at-bat of his brief career.
The rookie infielder has been adjusting to life as a backup after playing every day in the minors, but it's not easy.
"I've been loving being up here with these guys; it's been fun," Lombardozzi said. "But you also get that itch. After you watch a couple of games, you want to get out there."
Finally given his opportunity to start as manager Davey Johnson gave regular second baseman Danny Espinosa a "mental break," Lombardozzi made the most of it. He delivered a career-high four hits, none bigger than his two-run double to left in that sixth inning to put the Nationals back on top.
"I won't forget this night," the Maryland native said. "It was pretty awesome. And to do it here, at home, was pretty special."
Zimmerman made sure to give the Nationals even more of a cushion when he added his own two-run single moments after Lombardozzi's hit. Washington's bullpen then sealed the deal, getting three solid innings of work from Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, Tom Gorzelanny and Henry Rodriguez to put a nice bow on this 6-3 victory.
Strasburg was the biggest beneficiary of it all, earning the win to improve to 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts. But the happiest player in the home clubhouse might well have been Lombardozzi, who perhaps deserves a chance to play more regularly but is stuck for now on the bench.
"He's a good player, had a heck of a night," Johnson said. "As much as I like him, Espi's my second baseman."
Lombardozzi is fine with that. He's simply enjoying life in the big leagues, contributing any way he can.
As other, more-seasoned players in that clubhouse can attest, sometimes those backups can make all the difference for a team with lofty aspirations.
"That was unbelievable," Ankiel said. "All the championship teams that I've been on, I think the biggest thing is when you have your starters not play and that guy that steps in for him, when they come in and have a night like that, that's when you talk about championship teams right there. So what a night for him."