Stephen Strasburg skipped the All-Star Game so he could put all of his efforts into pitching tonight's second-half opener. So far, the right-hander is putting that extra preparation to good use.
Strasburg has tossed four scoreless innings so far against the Pirates, allowing only one batter to reach base (via walk). It's the third straight start in which he hasn't allowed a hit through his first four innings on the mound.
Francisco Liriano has been nearly as sharp himself, retiring the first nine Nationals he faced before surrendering a leadoff single to Trea Turner in the bottom of the fourth. Michael A. Taylor's subsequent walk put the Nats in business, but Liriano got out of the jam inducing comebackers from both Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper to end the fourth with the game still scoreless.
Though he elected not to pitch in Tuesday night's Midsummer Classic in his hometown of San Diego out of precaution for the upper back strain that not long ago landed him on the disabled list, Strasburg has pitched exceptionally well of late. He entered tonight's start having allowed only two hits in 13 2/3 innings since returning from the injury, and he has only extended that run tonight.
Seeking to become the first NL pitcher to begin a season 13-0 since 1912, Strasburg pitched around a one-out walk of David Freese by getting Andrew McCutchen to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the top of the first.
He then retired the side in the top of the second on seven pitches, the top of the third on 12 pitches and the top of the fourth on 12 pitches, the Pirates failing to record a hit along the way.
There were some nice plays in the field to aid Strasburg's cause, most notably two plays by Danny Espinosa in the top of the fourth in which he went to his right to snag grounders to the hole and then fired across the diamond for the out.
Those plays may prove important by the end of the night, if Strasburg can keep this up.
Update: After four dominating innings by both starters, it's only fitting both teams would score in the fifth. The Pirates struck first, turning Starling Marte's single and stolen base plus Jordy Mercer's soft liner past a lunging Clint Robinson into the night's first run and ending Strasburg's no-hit bid. (This was, by the way, the third straight start in which Strasburg carried a no-hitter into at least the fifth inning.) The Nationals struck right back in the bottom of the inning, though, with consecutive singles by Wilson Ramos, Espinosa and Robinson to tie the game 1-1 after five.
Update II: Well, things have escalated quickly here. The Nats just scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh, thanks to some aggressive baserunning by Espinosa, sloppy Pirates defense and a two-run blast by Michael A. Taylor. Put that all together, and you've got a 5-1 lead by the home team, with Strasburg continuing to cruise as he returns to the mound for the top of the eighth on 90 pitches.
Update III: And that'll do it. Nats win 5-1. Strasburg went eight innings, allowing three hits. Shawn Kelley finished it off in the ninth. And the Nationals opened the second half of the season in style, running their winning streak to four games.