Davey Johnson could sense it as soon as Stephen Strasburg walked out of the bullpen on Saturday night: The 23-year-old was coming off a bad outing, having been yanked after three innings in his last start, and now there was going to be hell to pay.
"He was probably mad at me and everybody else," the Nationals manager said. "He only went three the last time. But he's looking good."
It was clear again on Saturday night, as it's been numerous times already in his short career: Strasburg is at his best when he's at his surliest, when no slight - real or perceived - goes undocumented and no ounce of motivational fuel is wasted.
He tore back from his three-inning hiccup on Sunday with a commanding six-inning performance, during which he needed just 61 pitches to go deeper into a game than he has at any point since July 16, 2010, also against the Florida Marlins. He showcased his newest weapon - an elevated fastball - on several occasions, striking out Mike Stanton twice. And after scowling his way through eight- and nine-pitch innings, Strasburg stood in front of reporters, scowling his way through eight- and nine-word answers.
"I'm going to go out until they tell me I'm done, bottom line," Strasburg said.
It's no secret among the Nationals that Strasburg is a truly terrible loser. He detests defeat, and when the Nationals lost to the Marlins in 13 innings, with Collin Balester giving up three runs seven innings after Strasburg left the game, Strasburg was still seething - over the 79th loss of the year for a team he's been on for two weeks.
As much as any of his plentiful physical gifts, team officials love this part of Strasburg - the one that didn't want to throw a ceremonial first pitch when he got drafted, telling general manager Mike Rizzo, "The first time I throw a pitch, it's going to be on the mound, and it's going to be a hundred."
That furor, the desire to battle anyone who might stumble into his path, is what will either make Strasburg one of the game's best pitchers or, if his arm gives out under his high-90s heat, a whole lot of fun to watch while he's here. If anything, Johnson found himself having to rein Strasburg in.
"He never needed to (throw a high fastball) early in his career," Johnson said. "Doing it up here, it's another weapon, because he can stay right down at the knees, and when he elevates, it's fun to watch. I know the fans love it, but as a manager, I don't like to see it, because he elevates and adds to it. I would rather see him just move it inside and throw it about the same speed. But I'm sure he's got something else in mind."
What's going on in Strasburg's mind probably will always be somewhat of an unknown to the Nationals. But they know this: It's the engine that drove him to return from Tommy John surgery in a year and three days, and it's what drives his sneering fastball.
All they have to do is hold on for the ride.