As a competitor, Stephen Strasburg has few equals. That's why, after he lasted just 4 2/3 innings in the Nationals' loss to the Marlins last week, manager Jim Riggleman had no doubt about what to expect from Strasburg in his next start on Sunday.
"I know he's going to go out and throw bullets," Riggleman said before Sunday's game.
Strasburg did. His first fastball was 98 mph, and he touched 99 mph consistently. His changeup was as hard as 92 mph, making more appearances against a lefty-heavy lineup than it had before, and he brought his sinker back out after going away from it in his last several outings. The final result wasn't dazzling - Strasburg needed 85 pitches to get through five innings, after striking out seven, and hurt himself with a second-inning throwing error - but he came back with a solid five innings in the Nationals' win over the Diamondbacks.
He allowed three runs in that time, only one of them earned, taking a no-decision in the victory.
"I've just got to trust my abilities and trust in my stuff," Strasburg said. "When I go out there and don't really commit to the pitches and try and execute them the way I know I can, that's when they hit it a long way. It's all about execution and really believing in yourself."
Strasburg allowed a second-inning homer to Adam LaRoche when he got behind the first baseman 2-0 and had to come over the plate with a 97-mph fastball. LaRoche turned on it for a solo shot, and Strasburg got in more trouble later in the inning, when he fielded Stephen Drew's dribbler in front of the mound and sailed a throw over Adam Dunn's head at first. That allowed Mark Reynolds to score all the way from first, and sent Drew to third; Drew would score on Gerardo Parra's sacrifice fly.
"I got a little sped up. The ball was moving, and instead of fielding it with my glove, I barehanded it," Strasburg said. "And then I realized after that, I had a lot more time. I tried to throw it a little bit slower, and it just sailed on me. It was pretty much bad fundamentals all around for that play. But I know what I did wrong, and come to it again, I know I'm going to do it right."
He got five groundouts against two flyouts, throwing his two-seamer on a few occasions, and went to his changeup more than he has in his recent starts, when Strasburg has been mostly a four-seam fastball and curveball pitcher.
"I really have to get (the changeup) going, because it's a good pitch. Guys have had a tough time handling it all year," Strasburg said. "I've just got to trust my stuff. The last outing (against) Florida, I was trying to find it the whole time, instead of going out there and letting it come to me."
Riggleman said Strasburg told him this was the best he'd felt all season. But when the sixth inning rolled around - delayed by four fans who ran on the field to protest Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law - Riggleman decided to pull Strasburg after 85 pitches.
Had Strasburg not spent time on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, Riggleman said, he probably would have let the rookie pitch to a batter or two in the sixth inning. But with the protest holding things up, Riggleman changed his mind.
"If I sent him back out, it was going to be for a hitter or two. I didn't want to get the pitches too high," Riggleman said. "I think this was a good one for him to build on for his next one."
As it was, though, Strasburg put things back together nicely on Sunday. Aside from a couple mistakes, he looked as solid as ever. His next one promises to be a circus, with the rookie heading to Philadelphia for the first time to face the Phillies on Saturday.
But he'll do so coming off a sturdier outing on Sunday.
"You want to bounce back after a not-so-good outing before," Strasburg said. "It's a new ballgame. I flushed all the stuff that happened before. I just wanted to go out there and do my thing. We were able to go out there and get a W today. That's the bottom line."