If Stephen Strasburg’s worst days of this season are behind him, then Nationals’ opponents may want to take cover.
Just weeks ago Strasburg was considered to be struggling, an ace with questions of his comportment and emotional stability on the mound. Now he’s carving up opponents and sitting with the N.L.’s tenth best ERA at 2.49.
In another masterful performance on Sunday - in the Nats’ 6-1 win over the Phillies before 39,033 at Nationals Park - Strasburg was as dominant as ever. His teammates are used to seeing him pitch well, but this is next-level stuff.
“He’s really improving,” Ian Desmond said. “I think this is probably the best we’ve seen him. The last two starts are probably the best two starts we’ve seen from him since he’s been in the big leagues.“
“Obviously the punchouts and stuff that came before were great, but he’s starting to figure it out on another level. It’s exciting to watch. He’s a young guy growing up.”
Strasburg blew through the Phillies’ lineup with one earned run on a balk, five hits, nine strikeouts and no walks. He also had two hits on offense against Cole Hamels.
It was another crisp start to continue a dominant last few weeks. In his last four starts, Strasburg holds a 0.96 ERA off three earned runs with 27 strikeouts.
Strasburg is starting to take more control of at-bats with first pitch strikes and using his fastball to set up his secondary pitches.
“My fastball command has gotten a little better as the season has gone on and I’ve gotten more comfortable out of the stretch,” Strasburg said. “It’s all about making adjustments. Sometimes you’re not gonna start the year where you want to be, but it’s all about how you end the season.”
Strasburg emerged the victor in what was a pitchers’ duel through the first six innings. Hamels - a fellow San Diego native facing off with Strasburg for the first time - was dealing early on, but unraveled in the seventh inning to relinquish the lead.
Ryan Zimmerman began the inning with a single and was then joined by Adam LaRoche on base. Both runners were moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Desmond, and each scored two batters later on an infield grounder by Jhonatan Solano.
Solano barely got a bat on the ball, producing a swinging bunt down the line to third. Phillies Michael Young threw a low ball home as Zimmerman slid in and it bounced past catcher Humberto Quintero and into the backstop. This allowed LaRoche to score and give the Nats a sigh of relief.
It was a lucky play of sorts, but it worked and gave Washington a much needed two-run lead.
“With those two guys pitching it was going to come down to a team hopefully getting a lucky break,” Zimmerman said. “Today that was us.”
“All you need is that little break. We’ve been waiting for that,” Desmond said. “A couple of weeks ago they probably would have turned a double play on that swinging bunt by Solano somehow, some way. Things are starting to unfold.”
Hamels finished with five runs allowed, only three earned because of errors. The Nats added three more in the seventh, two off a Steve Lombardozzi double to right field and another off a Denard Span double to left.
Washington would put another run on the board in the eighth off a Tyler Moore single to score LaRoche, giving the Nats six runs for the first time in over a week. They recorded at least ten hits as a team for the third straight game, having at least eight in four consecutive outings.
On Sunday the Nats had their ace going and their offense backing him up, giving them hope they can keep it up after winning three out of their last four.
“We haven’t been able to string too long of a streak together this year so hopefully we can use this and build some momentum,” Zimmerman said.
A four-game series with the Baltimore Orioles is up next.