The fuel for the Nationals' 4-0 win over the Marlins on Friday night, which started the second half of the season in as impressive a fashion as they could have possibly hoped for, came from the sixth-inning rally that provided all of their offense.
Those were the basics: Josh Willingham clearing the bases with a three-run double to right and later scoring on Ivan Rodriguez's sacrifice fly. But if not for Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals wouldn't have gotten to that point.
Strasburg has been wrestling with his stuff in the first inning all year, and his eighth big-league start was no exception. He threw 34 pitches, missing the outside corner of the plate with his curveball and scattering the five changeups he threw. That Strasburg made it through the first inning without allowing a run was somewhat in spite of his stuff.
But as he's been able to do so well, he adjusted right away. Strasburg ditched his changeup, throwing just two the rest of the night. He tightened up his curveball, started pounding the strike zone with that pitch and his fastball, and needed just 65 pitches to get through the rest of the game.
It was Strasburg at his self-correcting best, identifying his mistakes like a veteran 10 years his senior. He gave up two hits the first time through the lineup, a hit and a walk the second time through and only one hit the third time through.
Where most rookies struggle the more they have to face a pitcher in a game, Strasburg keeps cruising; hitters had a .568 OPS in their first plate appearance against him before tonight. If that's not an impressive enough figure, it drops to .558 the second time through. The third time, it's .497, and Strasburg has not given up a run.
He's in charge of his stuff, aware of what he needs to throw in certain situations and in possession of an arsenal that will usually yield at least one effective out pitch in a night.
That was his curveball at times on Friday, and a rising fastball at others. But against the Marlins, both pitched worked to deliver the message: Strasburg is the rare pitcher who gets stronger as the game goes on, and the even rarer rookie who can already do it eight starts into his career.