When discussing his individual goals for this season back in spring training, Stephen Strasburg would often come back to one word that he hoped would eventually be used to describe him.
After a 2012 season in which he never worked longer than seven innings and was shut down during a pennant race after 159 1/3 innings, Strasburg was determined to become the guy that would consistently work deep into games, giving his team a chance to win and eating innings for his pitching staff.
Entering tonight, Strasburg had thrice completed eight innings this season, but he’d never reached the ninth. He accomplished that goal in tonight’s 6-0 Nationals win, shutting the Phillies out in a complete-game four-hitter, striking out 10 and needing just 99 pitches to finish off his outing.
“It felt good,” Strasburg said. “It’s something you try and do every time out, and you have to try and learn to go out there and get outs with less pitches. That’s something I tried to set out doing at the start of the season here, and I knew it was only going to be a matter of time where I was gonna have one of those games where they hit it right to where we were playing and the defense made great plays. ...
“It’s a good feeling. But there’s still a long way to go, and I’m not satisfied. I’d like to go out there with the same mindset as I did today and see how deep I can go the next game.”
It might have looked like Strasburg cruised through today’s outing without any bumps in the road, but that wasn’t exactly the case. When warming up in the bullpen before the game, Strasburg said his stuff felt off and that his command was lacking.
That issue actually caused Strasburg to refocus, and he was nothing but effective from the opening pitch, retiring the Phillies in order on just eight pitches (all strikes) in the first inning.
“Honestly I didn’t feel good at all,” Strasburg said. “I didn’t have good command in the bullpen, and I think when that happened in the past, I would just try and jam it down their throat and throw it as hard as I can. I kinda learned that that didn’t really get much accomplished.
“So, I think it just helped me take a step back and really focus on being nice and easy and hitting my spots.”
Then in the second, Strasburg threw a pitch to the backstop when facing Domonic Brown and seemed to be in some discomfort on the mound, bringing trainer Lee Kuntz, pitching coach Steve McCatty and manager Davey Johnson from the dugout.
Turns out, Strasburg had been dealing with a minor groin injury in recent days, and it was posing a problem when Strasburg flew open with his front side when delivering a pitch. Strasburg was determined to pitch through the issue, however, so he shooed Kuntz, McCatty and Johnson back to the dugout.
Strasburg then proceeded to retire 14 of the next 15 hitters he faced, eight via the strikeout.
“The groin was something that was just kinda nagging me a little bit, just getting a workout in the other day,” Strasburg said. “But like I said, it was no big deal. I think it definitely loosened up as the game went on. ...
“It was something where number one, I had to tell myself not to think about it, and then number two, when I did feel it, it was because I was flying open. ... That just helped me kind of take a step back, like I said, and just go nice and easy and stay on line as long as I can.”
Strasburg had pitched nine innings before, although not since joining the Nationals organization in 2009. He took the mound in the top of the ninth to a standing ovation from the 32,355 at Nats Park, heard his warm-up song (the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”) pump through the stadium speakers, and tried to bear down.
His first three pitches - all fastballs - were well wide of the mark, but he bounced back to retire Carlos Ruiz on a flyout to center, Jimmy Rollins on a pop-out and Kevin Frandsen on a hot-shot liner to Ryan Zimmerman at third.
“I think it’s definitely different doing it at the big league level,” Strasburg said. “You’re definitely a lot more drained as the game goes on. Like I said, defense played great, offense scored some runs, and just able to go out there and pitch to contact.”
It’s not often you see a pitcher work a complete game on just 99 pitches when he’s struck out 10 batters. With high strikeout numbers generally come high pitch counts. But not for Strasburg tonight.
“My stuff was just on today,” Strasburg said. “I didn’t really try and change my approach today, my stuff was just biting and was getting a lot of swings and misses.”
As Strasburg gave his postgame on-field interview with MASN’s Julie Alexandria, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen came up from behind Strasburg and doused him with a Gatorade bath. Strasburg stood there in shock for a few seconds before cracking a big smile.
“I was OK with the Gatorade,” Strasburg said, “I was just glad it wasn’t shaving cream.”