Stephen Strasburg was still in the first base dugout at Nationals Park during the bottom of the seventh Monday afternoon, having only completed his work a few minutes earlier, when he watched with glee as Adam Lind’s pinch-hit homer sailed over the fence, turning a 2-1 deficit to the Marlins into a 3-2 lead.
Until that moment, Strasburg was staring at a hard-luck loss next to his name, his first in four opening day starts. And then in the blink of an eye, he was suddenly in line to take the win, keeping his streak alive of helping the Nationals emerge victorious in each of his opening day outings.
“It just reminded me of when I first started last year,” he said. “I was sitting looking at a loss, and a timely pinch-hitter came through and helped me spit the hook out.”
Sure enough, Strasburg had been through a similar situation one year ago. Despite six innings of one-run ball against the Braves at Turner Field, he and the Nats trailed 1-0 ... until Wilson Ramos drove in the game-tying run in the seventh and Matt den Dekker followed with a two-run, pinch-hit double to give his team the lead and Strasburg the win.
Whether you believe in pitcher wins or not, you have to acknowledge Strasburg has most often given his team a chance to win when he takes the mound in his first appearance of the season.
And that’s exactly what he did Monday, surrendering two runs in the top of the fourth but otherwise pitching effectively and efficiently over seven strong innings.
“Stras, he gave us more than we really wanted,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Not wanted. More than we had hoped for, especially in that first outing.”
You never know what you’re going to get from a starting pitcher on opening day. No matter how much he builds his arm up over the course of six weeks of spring training, there’s no way to simulate the physical and mental stress of pitching in a real game.
Strasburg, though, gave Baker no reason for concern Monday afternoon. He kept his pitch count so low - 85 total, 63 of them strikes - that he was able to complete seven innings with no excess effort.
Strasburg didn’t so much blow away hitters - he only struck out three - as he did carve them up by inducing weak contact, recording 11 outs on the ground.
“I was just trying to get more ground balls,” he said. “Keep attacking the strike zone. There was some balls put in play that they made some web gems behind me. That kind of kept the pitch count down as well.”
Strasburg threw every one of his pitches from the stretch, as he did throughout the spring. The lack of a full windup was perhaps noticeable early on - how many guys throw the first pitch of the season from the stretch? - but the novelty wore of quickly and the focus returned to Strasburg’s stuff, which included a 98 mph fastball to strike out Christian Yelich in the top of the first.
“To me, if his stuff is good, he can throw from behind the back if he wants to,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “But he threw the ball well today. He had a couple fastballs that ended up more middle (of the plate). But other than that, he was on point with all of his off-speed stuff, and was able to locate in when he needed to.”
And on a day when the Nationals would have been perfectly content with six decent innings, Strasburg gave them more. He went seven. He pitched well. And he left them in a position where one big blow late could be the difference.
“I wanted to go deep into the game,” he said. “Can’t really look at the big picture when you are out there. Just got to keep pounding the zone. Keep it close, and give the guys a chance to go out there and win the game.”