Associated Press photo
Stephen Strasburg improved to 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA.
At some point, the Nationals stop being amazed by Stephen Strasburg. Because it seems he never fails to deliver.
"You get used to seeing it," first baseman Adam LaRoche said following Thursday night's command performance in a 4-2 win over the Pirates. "You've got a guy that goes out there and throws the way he does every single fifth day, you kind of start to expect it. That's a good thing."
It's an even better thing when the Nationals are able to send Strasburg to the mound in an attempt to stop a losing streak dead in its tracks. Having dropped three straight and in danger both of being swept by Pittsburgh and falling out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 30 days, the Nationals desperately needed Strasburg to come up big.
Which is exactly what the 23-year-old ace did. Even if he still shies away from the label.
"You guys can put me in that role all you want," he said. "But I'm going to sit here and say that there's four other guys in this rotation that can do it, too."
True, fellow starters Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler all are capable of ending a losing streak. But make no mistake, they can't do what Strasburg did Thursday night at PNC Park. Few in baseball right now can.
Facing the Pirates for the first time since mowing them down during his 14-strikeout, major-league debut 23 months ago, Strasburg again made mincemeat of Pittsburgh's lineup. He struck out seven consecutive batters from the bottom of the first through the bottom of the third, then added six more before finally taking a seat after the sixth.
And this, remember, is the "new" Strasburg who since returning from elbow surgery has made a concerted effort to strike out fewer opposing batters while trying to induce contact earlier in the count.
Did the right-hander surprise even himself with his baker's dozen worth of Ks in this outing?
"Maybe a little bit," he said. "But when the stuff's working like tonight, I'm just going to go out there and just throw it, and it doesn't really matter what you throw."
It didn't seem to matter to the Pirates, who flailed away at everything Strasburg fired in their direction. Of his 13 strikeouts, 11 came on swings-and-misses. Seven came on fastballs. Three apiece came on curveballs and changeups.
"That's a good arm," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said in the understatement of the night. "The arm's fresh, it's legit. And he's got a good head to work with it. The progress he's made in a short period of time at this level is really something."
For a while, though, Strasburg's dominance was in danger of being wasted. Unable yet again to get anything going at the plate, the Nationals entered the top of the sixth trailing 2-0 and having squandered whatever opportunities they had to score against veteran Kevin Correia.
And then with one titanic blast off the bat of Roger Bernadina -- a 430-foot home run into the back bullpen in deep left-center field -- the entire visitors dugout was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
"To get us back to within one, I think it did," LaRoche said. "I think that was kind of the blow we needed to get guys pumped up a little bit."
Two batters later, LaRoche stepped to the plate and nearly duplicated Bernadina's feat, crushing another Correia pitch into the front bullpen to give the Nationals a 3-2 and put Strasburg in line for the win.
"You don't have room for error when you're facing a guy like Strasburg," Correia said.
No, but Strasburg did make things interesting when he retook the mound with that one-run lead in the bottom of the sixth. After recording two quick outs, he proceeded to load the bases on three consecutive walks.
"Just started to nibble a little bit," he said, "trying to throw the perfect pitch."
Strasburg took a deep breath and reminded himself to trust his stuff and not feel the need to try to overpower the next hitter. Which he did in blowing a 96 mph fastball past Garrett Jones to snuff out the rally and end his night on a high note.
"I was going to challenge him," Strasburg said of Jones, who is now 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in his career against him. "I wasn't going to walk him and walk in a run to tie it up. I was going to make him beat me."
Victory was not yet in hand for the Nationals, though. They needed a scoreless seventh inning from Ryan Mattheus and a scoreless eighth from Tyler Clippard. Rick Ankiel's moonshot into the right-field bleachers in the top of the ninth provided a little extra cushion for Henry Rodriguez, who rebounded from his blown save Tuesday night to close out the Pirates and secure this much-needed win.
Not to mention ensure the Nationals didn't waste another dominant performance by the young ace of a supremely talented pitching staff.
"You get down a couple runs, and I think that starts to creep in: Don't let this be another night where you miss some opportunities," LaRoche said. "You get a guy like that out there -- and we've got a lot of them -- you don't have to score too many runs. It's bailed us out more than once."