PHILADELPHIA - Stephen Strasburg wanted to pick up where he left off. Even with nine days between starts, the big right-hander returned from the All-Star break and continued to shut down opponents.
The Nationals provided quick run support and Strasburg got out of an early jam, then fought through six innings in a 4-0 win at Philadelphia before a sold-out 42,318 at Citizens Bank Park.
Strasburg has not allowed a run in his last two starts, spanning 13 1/3 innings, both victories over division foes. Strasburg beat the Marlins 3-1 on July 3. He now has a four-game win streak dating back to June 21.
The Nationals have won 29 of their last 40 games and continue to be the hottest team in baseball, winning nine of their last 11 outings.
Strasburg believes fighting for a playoff berth might be a better way to end the season, playing meaningful baseball instead of coasting.
“It’s huge,” Strasburg said of their recent run. “I just know in the past like when we’ve clinched early, and kind of had that long layoff, all the wild card games are going on we had a tendency to kind of be a little flat.
“But I think with us here, we’ve had guys that have been in that situation before. We all knew what was coming. We weren’t going to show up and just kind of be lackadaisical. We wanted to go out there and keep playing hard.”
The Nationals now lead the Brewers and Phillies by 1 1/2 games for the top spot in the National League wild card race.
The offense tallied three runs off Phillies starter and former Nats draft pick Nick Pivetta, thanks to a Victor Robles two-run single and a Ryan Zimmerman sacrifice fly. Juan Soto’s insurance sacrifice fly in the ninth inning scored Howie Kendrick from third to push the lead to 4-0.
The Phillies thought they had a shot to get to Strasburg in their first at-bat. With two outs in the first inning, Bryce Harper blooped in a single to shallow left field and then Strasburg walked Rhys Hoskins.
Facing the dangerous Jay Bruce, Strasburg again did what he has been doing to get the crucial outs all season: he mixed his fastball with his curveball and changeup. Bruce popped out weakly to Anthony Rendon in foul territory to end the inning.
Strasburg had to throw 26 pitches in the inning. What was amazing is in the Harper at-bat, he ran the count to 2-2. Strasburg threw his former teammate Harper an 81-mph curveball that appeared to strike out the slugger. But home plate umpire Dan Iassogna ruled the swing a foul tip. 11 pitches later, Strasburg finally got out of the inning.
“I think (catcher Kurt Suzuki) thought he didn’t hit it, so he went out and ran after it,” Strasburg said. “I don’t know. Got another strike and that’s all (Harper) needed to hit one out there. It’s important to kind of let those things go and focus on the next pitch and the next guy up.”
The Phillies deposited two men on base in the fourth and fifth innings against Strasburg, each time on singles. But the right-hander was able to pitch out of those jams too. The only issue was his pitch count. He left after 111 pitches over six innings. But he didn’t allow a run, scattering six hits, walking one and striking out six.
“He was really good,” said Nationals manager Davey Martinez. “His pitch count got up there a little bit, but he got big outs when he needed it. When he keeps the ball down - I say this all the time - he’s very effective.
“All his pitches look the same,” the skipper continued. “He gets a lot of swings. He got a lot of swings, and they fouled balls off. Those guys can hit, but for the most part he kept the ball down all day.”
Strasburg also benefited from a leaping catch at the wall by Soto to begin the bottom of the fourth. The left fielder took extra bases away from Hoskins.
“Just come through,” Soto said of the play. “I ran right to the wall. I didn’t even know I was that close to the wall. I saw the wall a couple times but, when I jump, I think I was a little bit further and I tried to make (the play) the best I can.”
So on a night when Strasburg fought to get through six innings on a heavy workload, the Nats bullpen needed to come up with three innings to preserve the win.
Sean Doolittle came on in the ninth, allowed a single to Andrew Knapp, but struck out pinch-hitter Rob Brantly to end the game.
Up four runs in the ninth, Martinez did not hesitate to go to Doolittle even though it was not a save situation.
“Here’s my thoughts - it took me about three seconds - we’re playing at Citizens Bank Park, four runs, that isn’t much here,” Martinez said. “Those guys can hit. Doolittle is coming in the game. It’s a big moment. He’s my guy. That game is huge, coming off a four-day break, and he’s rested and we need to win that first game.”