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Stephen Strasburg improved to 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA after seven strong innings.
"He's a true No. 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."
A scary thought, indeed, because even at this relatively novice stage of his career, Strasburg is already establishing himself as one of the true stoppers in the sport.
Take Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over the Rays. The Nationals entered this one on a four-game losing streak, perhaps starting to question their ability to beat the elite competition they're currently facing from the AL East.
There may be no better pitcher in such a situation, though, than Strasburg. Four times this season he's started with the Nationals mired in a losing streak of at least three games. And all four times he's earned a win.
"With him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Stras is unbelievable on the bump. He's a specimen out there."
And more and more, he's resembling the man who currently holds the title of "Baseball's Best Pitcher." Yes, Strasburg is beginning to compare favorably to Justin Verlander.
Begin with the pure numbers. Through 14 starts this season, Strasburg is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the majors with 110 strikeouts in only 84 innings. Verlander's stats through the first 14 starts of his MVP 2011 campaign with the Tigers: 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 102 2/3 innings.
Lest anyone get carried away, this isn't to suggest Strasburg's 2012 numbers are going to surpass Verlander's 2011 numbers by season's end. Verlander did, after all, go 17-2 with a 2.06 ERA over his final 20 starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, is expected to be shut down once he reaches 160 or so innings and won't be making any appearances during the late-September stretch drive.
Point is, Strasburg is dominating as thoroughly as any pitcher could given the strict limitations the Nationals have placed on him.
"He's very good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I had never seen it in person. ... He is very, very exciting."
Perhaps the most favorable comparison between Strasburg and Verlander is each pitcher's ability to get stronger the more he throws, peaking not on his first pitch but on his last.
Strasburg certainly put that trait on display Wednesday night during his dominant seventh inning. With his pitch count already in triple digits, he struck out the final two batters he faced: Will Rhymes on an 89 mph changeup, then Desmond Jennings on back-to-back 98 mph fastballs (the hardest pitches he'd thrown since the first inning).
"They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going," Strasburg said. "So I'd say maybe that's a little bit what happens. But I don't think I'm going out there with a mindset I'm just going to let everything go."
Each pitch Strasburg threw during his final innings carried plenty of added pressure, because with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, one mistake could have made all the difference in the world.
Not that he didn't get a little bit of help behind him, most notably from Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the potential tying run on second, the Nationals' rookie left fielder came charging in to make a diving catch of Jose Molina's sinking liner, quash the rally and bring the crowd of 27,485 to its feet.
Lombardozzi, a career second baseman who never played the outfield until this season, actually broke backward upon seeing Molina strike the ball but quickly recovered.
"At first I took a step back and I realized it was going to be short," he said. "So I just was hauling my butt in and I was able to make the catch."
Each defensive play late loomed large because a Nationals lineup that pounced on Rays right-hander Chris Archer in his big-league debut for three first-inning runs went silent the rest of the night. Lombardozzi's double, Harper's RBI single and Ian Desmond's RBI single proved to be their club's only hits of the game.
"I'm glad we did it in the first," Johnson said as he opened his postgame news conference.
The manager also was glad to be able to hand the ball to his ace, the 23-year-old who seems to get better as each start progresses, with a limitless future in front of him.
"He does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it," Johnson said. "And then as he gets into the game, where he has confidence in all of his pitches, he gets the feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it.
"That's basically his gameplan. Pretty good one."