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Opening second half in style, Strasburg improves to 13-0

In explaining why he was choosing not to pitch in the only All-Star Game that will take place in his hometown during his active career, Stephen Strasburg emphasized how it was more important for him to pitch not in an exhibition game in San Diego but in as many big games as possible for the Nationals the remainder of this season.

"In my head, I want to make up for the two starts I missed (while on the disabled list)," the right-hander said last weekend in New York. "So hopefully I'll start the first game back and get the second half going right."

How about eight innings of one-run, three-hit ball against a quality Pirates lineup during tonight's 5-1 victory at Nationals Park? Is that a good way to get the second half of the season started?

This has become the norm for Strasburg, of course. He has been electric all season, now sporting a perfect 13-0 record to go along with a 2.51 ERA. And he's only gotten better since returning from his minor upper back strain late last month, surrendering a grand total of two runs and five hits over his last three starts spanning 21 2/3 innings, carrying a no-hitter into at least the fifth inning each time.

Is anyone truly upset now that he sat out the Midsummer Classic?

Strasburg-Throws-Blue-Sidebar.jpg"He got some grief for not pitching in the All-Star Game, but he was doing what he thought was best for us and him," manager Dusty Baker said. "Boy, that sets the tone for the rest of the series."

Indeed, Strasburg threw down the gauntlet tonight, setting the tone for the rest of his Nationals teammates, who entered their four-day break playing good baseball and now hope to pick up where they left off.

The right-hander faced the minimum over his first four innings, erasing a walk of David Freese with a subsequent double play, before the Pirates finally notched their first hit (and ultimately lone run) of the evening. And though he labored ever so slightly in his final frame, issuing a two-out walk to Josh Bell and then running the count full before striking out Josh Harrison on his 105th pitch of the game, he never truly let up in his latest dominant outing.

And so Strasburg extended his winning streak yet again. He's only the eighth starting pitcher in major league history to open a season 13-0, the first National League starter to do it since Rube Marquard of the 1912 New York Giants. (For what it's worth, the last three guys to start 13-0 - Max Scherzer in 2013, Roger Clemens in 1986, Ron Guidry in 1978 - all won their league's Cy Young Award.)

Go back to the end of last season and Strasburg has won his last 16 decisions, just one shy of the Washington baseball record established by Firpo Marberry in 1930-31. And go back to last summer, when he returned from a previous upper back injury, and check out his totals over a stretch of 30 starts: 21-2 with a 2.20 ERA, 248 strikeouts and 45 walks in 196 2/3 innings.

Strasburg, echoing a sentiment he has regularly expressed throughout this run, insisted only so much of those numbers are truly within his own power.

"The results, I can't control," he said. "I'm trying to go out there and execute pitches, roll with the highs and lows. It's always going to be that way. You ask any veteran pitcher in the league. There's years where they feel like they really dominated all year and just didn't have the numbers to show for it. And there's other years when they really didn't pitch to the level they expected, and they had all the numbers to show for it. So all that stuff is going to be what it's going to be. But as far as what I can control, I'm just going out there and trying to get better and help this team win some games."

There is something to the manner, however, in which Strasburg is winning these games. He has been a very good pitcher throughout his career when healthy. (The guy is 67-37 with a 3.02 ERA, after all.)

But he has managed to elevate his performance to another level, in part by minimizing whatever little damage is done when he's on the mound. He has yet to surrender more than four runs in any start this season; he hasn't allowed more than six hits in any of his last 12 outings.

"In my opinion, this is the best I've seen him pitch," catcher Wilson Ramos, who like Strasburg debuted for the Nationals in 2010, said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. "In the last few years, he had a tendency to maybe get down on when things didn't go his way or defense let him down. But I've been talking a lot to him, keeping him upbeat about letting his pitches work and letting his defense work for him as well. ... His attitude, I think, is the biggest difference, with the way he's going out there and just being aggressive, a lot more aggressive than he has been the last few years. And I think that's made a big difference."

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