Mixing pitches, Strasburg befuddles Cardinals in Game 3 victory

Stephen Strasburg is in a zone at just the right time for the Nationals.

He again demonstrated his elite ability with seven strong innings Monday night, striking out 12 and allowing just one unearned run in an 8-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

The Nats lead the series three games to none and can clinch the first trip to the World Series in franchise history on Tuesday night in Game 4.

What zone is Strasburg in? Try 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in four games (three starts) this postseason.

And when Strasburg’s curveball and changeup end up in the strike zone, hitters are in trouble.

Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals’ best hitter, struck out three times. In the first, he was called out on a third-strike curveball. Strasburg got him with an 89 mph changeup in the fourth. In the sixth, it was two more changeups. Each time, Strasburg set up the strikeout with his fastball and then the changeup.

“It’s a good pitch,” Goldschmidt said of the changeup. “It looks similar to his fastball and has a lot of movement. He locates it well, keeps it down, so even if you see it, it’s a weak ground ball or a swing and miss like he did tonight. We didn’t do a good enough job laying off of it and hitting it if he left it up. I’m not even sure if he did at all.”

José Martínez made Strasburg work all night, collecting two hits and a fielder’s choice in three at-bats.

Strasburg-Walks-off-Mound-NLCS-Blue-Sidebar.jpgIn the seventh inning, Martínez dropped in his second single of the game against Strasburg and Nationals manager Davey Martinez came out for a mound visit.

“He just had to come out there and check on me, and I told him I’m good,” Strasburg said of the conversation.

But there actually was a lot more to it. Martinez noticed Strasburg grabbing the back of his leg after a pitch.

“He didn’t want to come out of the game,” Martinez said. “I was trying to explain to him; ‘Hey, you just grabbed your hamstring, so there’s a little concern.’ He said, ‘No, I cramped up. It’s fine. I always cramp up.’ He said, ‘I’m staying in the game. I want to finish this inning.’ “

Strasburg was emphatic with Martinez about finishing the inning. Rewind to 2012, when Strasburg did not even get a shot at the Cardinals because the club opted to protect their young ace following his return from Tommy John rehab, shutting him down in September.

“I said, ‘You sure you’re all right?’ ” Martinez asked Strasburg. “He said, ‘I’m in the game!’ And I looked at Suzuki, and Suzuki said, ‘Let him finish.’ I said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to twist my arm. You’re throwing the ball good, but I want to make sure you’re OK,’ and he was good. He finished the inning strong.”

Even with a high pitch count, Strasburg remained in the game. After allowing back-to-back singles, Strasburg struck out Tommy Edman on a changeup. Then came a hit by Paul DeJong, when Martínez scored on a throwing error by Juan Soto.

But Strasburg struck out pinch-hitter and former teammate Matt Wieters on a changeup for the second out. And the right-hander then struck out Dexter Fowler for the third time in the game, this time to end the seventh inning.

“I just kind of stick to my approach, really focus on that tendency when you kind of feel like you’re close to the finish line is that everything speeds up,” Strasburg said. “Typically, when I let that happen, it ends up being a pretty long inning like it was there. You just have to make the adjustment when that happens.”

Martinez said Strasburg’s fastball was so good it actually was the reason his changeup became unhittable.

“I talked about this earlier with his change-up. For me, anybody that has a good changeup, their arm action is really good, and his was really good today,” Martinez said. “He has the same tempo as he does with his fastball, and the ball at the end just disappears, and he was really good. But I think, honestly, what made it really good today was his fastball. Utilizing his fastball at the right moment made his change-up that much better.”

Strasburg ended up with 12 strikeouts over seven innings, allowing one unearned run on seven hits with no walks. He threw 117 pitches, 84 for strikes.

He was also getting good results with his curveball. Against Goldschmidt in the first, he fed the Cardinals star four curveballs in the at-bat. Goldschmidt struck out on a called third-strike curveball.

This was an improvement from Game 5 of the National League Division Series in in Los Angeles last week when Strasburg searched for the curveball strike early on and the Dodgers built a 3-0 lead.

“In L.A. I was really locked in in the bullpen,” Strasburg said. “Curveball felt really good, and I went out there and it kind of lost me for a little bit. Whereas today, curveball wasn’t very good in the bullpen, but that’s happened enough times that it kind of doesn’t matter. It just showed itself pretty early in the game and was right where I wanted it to be.”

And that made life difficult for the Cardinals hitters all night, and defense somewhat dull for Anthony Rendon.

“It’s amazing watching him,” Rendon said. “It can get kind of boring when he’s striking everybody out. It’s definitely awesome. I’ve been behind him for a long time now. Man, he just continues to go after hitters. He’s confident in every one of his pitches. He’ll throw to any count. It’s just awesome just to be behind him.”

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