PHOENIX — As Stephen Strasburg made his way through the visitors’ clubhouse Friday afternoon at Chase Field, he seemed oblivious, as always, to the media firestorm around him. Television sets tuned to MLB Network blared at him regarding his own predicament, about the innings limit he will inevitably reach. Every time he starts, people are counting.
So as the talking heads debated the merits of the Washington Nationals’ plan for their otherworldly ace, and how they’ll survive without him in what appears to be an all-but certain playoff run, Strasburg stayed in his cocoon and above the fray. Then he went to work.
He took the mound with a slightly stiff back and one-hit the Arizona Diamondbacks for six innings in a 9-1 victory. With help from the bullpen, the third-best offense in the National League was held to just one hit through eight innings (three in total), as the Nationals won their 70th game of the season to move to 27 games over .500.
With their seventh straight victory, their 21st since the All-Star break, the Nationals marched onward, bludgeoning those in their path with a booming offense to complement their pitching and forcing the the numbers to tell a tantalizing story.
If the Nationals win just 25 of their final 49 games, they’ll finish with 95 victories, a mark that would have seen them make the playoffs easily in every year of their existence.
“We’re not doing anything more, not doing anything special,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “We’re just playing within ourselves. We’re just getting to the fun time.”
And for Johnson and the Nationals, watching Strasburg pitch the way he did against the Diamondbacks was exactly that: fun. It could’ve possibly been historic, too, had home plate umpire Dale Scott not taken a foul ball off the mask in the bottom of the fourth inning and been so shook up he needed to be removed from the game.
Strasburg, working on 3 ⅔ no-hit innings and one strike away from completing four, waited on the mound for nine minutes as C.B. Bucknor went to throw on his gear. “My fault,” Johnson said, for not pulling him and the rest of his team off the field during the delay. Strasburg, his pitch count already high and his back stiffening, paced around the mound. He threw a few warm-up pitches, waited, and threw a few more.
When Bucknor emerged, Strasburg issued two straight walks and then surrendered his only hit of the night, an RBI single to left field by Chris Johnson.
“It was tough,” said Strasburg, who walked four and struck out six. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. I hope he’s OK and everything. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. I wish I went out there and threw strikes, but it just didn’t work out.”
But herein lies the difficult line Strasburg and the Nationals must walk each time out. While they treat each start as if it’s not one step closer to a yet-to-be-determined expiration date, there are always considerations. Even if he’d carried things further with a zero in the hit column, Johnson said, he would have never allowed the right-hander to overextend himself.
“It wouldn’t have mattered to me one iota if he had a no-hitter,” Johnson said. “When it got to 115-120 pitches, he was gone.”
The back stiffness subsided the more Strasburg “let it rip,” as he put it, and his location improved the less he thought about his back. But as if Strasburg befuddling the Diamondbacks‘ hitters wasn’t enough, the offense also unloaded on starter Trevor Cahill and the parade of relievers who followed him.
Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run home run in the fifth, his 16th of the season. Michael Morse added a solo shot in the sixth that went 446 feet to right center field and, according to ESPN, become the longest opposite-field home run hit in the major leagues this season, though that came as no surprise inside his own clubhouse.
“The exhibition he’s been putting on in [batting practice] the last couple days,” Johnson said, “he’s losing more balls, I mean, they’re not going in the seats. They’re going in the conession stands. He’s starting to look for hard stuff a little better and he’s starting hit it out in front.”
Steve Lombardozzi, amping up his aggressiveness at the plate, was 4-for-5 and scored four runs. Jayson Werth was 3-for-5 with two doubles and two RBI.
“Even when we don’t get hits, we work the count or we walk,” Zimmerman said. “And really, anytime you can get guys on 2 through 7, you have a chance to do some damage.”
For the most part, they’re not winning on walk-offs or surprising teams. They’re not doing anything remarkable other than playing the way they have been for most of the season’s first 113 games. They take the field each night, “feeling like we’re going to win this game,” Lombardozzi said. And then they do. And with each win, the playoffs come that much more into focus.
“I think we’ve got our blinders on right now, just playing,” Morse said. “A lot of us, including myself, we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. This is uncharted waters for a lot of guys in here.
“We like what we’re doing. We want to keep doing what we’re doing. But we’re to a point where we’re not going to change a thing. We’re just going to keep pushing. I think we like winning and it’s contagious.”