Nats lean on their "true No. 1" yet again

Stephen Strasburg's outing tonight started in a somewhat bizarre fashion.

As the Nationals ace was preparing to step onto the mound and throw his first pitch to the Rays' Desmond Jennings, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson came walking out to the mound.

After all that went on yesterday with GloveGate, Strasburg assumed that Nelson was going to check his glove for a foreign substance. Turns out, the ump just wanted to see if the ball in Strasburg's hand had been scuffed up on catcher Jesus Flores' warm-up throw down to second base, which had short-hopped in.

"Stras was getting ready to undress," manager Davey Johnson said with a laugh. "He took his glove off, he had everything, and the ump said, 'No, I just want the ball.' ... He's ready to take everything off and let them search him."

"You're kind of expecting some sort of stuff to happen, especially the game after yesterday," Strasburg said, "but nothing really."

That was one of the few moments tonight where Strasburg was somewhat out of sorts. He went seven innings, allowed just two runs and struck out 10, marking the third time this season he's reached the double-digit strikeout mark. The righty improved to 9-1 on the season and now has a filthy 2.46 ERA.

"He's a true No. 1," Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."

"Stras is unbelievable on the bump," Bryce Harper said. "He's a specimen out there. He wants to compete and he wants to throw as long as he can. ... And with him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day."

Strasburg started off somewhat slow tonight, allowing single runs in the second and third innings. As the night went on, however, he picked up steam.

He retired 12 of the last 14 hitters he faced, and because he was grooving and working on six days rest due to two off-days, Johnson was willing to let him work the seventh inning despite the fact he entered the inning having thrown 98 pitches. He ended the outing needing 111 pitches to get through the seven innings.

"I was going to go up to probably 120 pitches with him," said Johnson, who didn't even have anyone warming in the bullpen during the seventh. "Especially after the fifth, sixth. He seemed to get stronger in the sixth and he turned it up a notch in the seventh. I hated to hook him."

That's a trend that we're starting to see with Strasburg. While he often opens with a flurry of strikeouts in the very early innings, it's often not until the latter innings that he really starts to click.

"I can't explain that," Strasburg said. "That's how I've always been. Even in college, my best innings were seven, eight and nine, when I would go nine innings. I think it's just getting a feel for the game, getting settled in and getting a feel for your pitches."

Strasburg's plan of attack is often to throw all his pitches early in the game to try and get a feel for them. By the time he's a few innings in, he's settled in and can really let loose. That's when he tends to lean more on his fastball, which still had great life even in the seventh inning tonight, when Strasburg was able to hit 98 mph on his final pitch.

Tonight, Strasburg had to battle the muggy conditions, which made it tough to get a feel for the ball. He went to the rosin bag a bit to try and keep his hands free of moisture, and was able to still put together a strong effort against a tough offense.

"It was tough," Strasburg said. "But the pitcher for them had to deal with the same stuff, so you've just got to keep making quality pitches. Sometimes you're going to leave 'em up, sometimes you're going to cut 'em, but you've just got to keep pitching.

"It was a battle out there. Hard getting a grip and it was just something that you have to persevere and overcome. It was a big win for us to get off that losing streak. Get ready to go tomorrow and win the series."

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