The Bucs Stopped Here
In case you hadn’t heard, Stephen Strasburg is still Stephen Strasburg. The 23 year-old right-hander took on the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday night for the first time since his Major League debut back in 2010. Those who remember Strasburg’s first big league start – and really, how could you forget it? – recall his utter dominance, as he struck out 14 batters over 7.0 innings of work. Not everyone remembers just how that outing ended though. The righty fanned the last seven batters he faced, striking out the side in his final two frames.
Fast-forward to Thursday night. After allowing a leadoff single to Jose Tabata in the first, Strasburg got Alex Presley to ground into a 6-4-3 double play, then struck out Andrew McCutchen, who had been the Nationals albatross all series long, to end the inning. From there, he struck out all three batters he faced in the second inning. Ditto in the third. Just like that, he had done it again, tying his own franchise mark with seven consecutive strikeouts.
Even more impressively though, was that it came against these same Pirates. Doing the quick math, if one goes back to his first start, Strasburg struck out 14 of 16 Pittsburgh batters he faced. Those are numbers reserved for Little League contests or video games, not Major League Baseball games.
Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche continued to crush the ball through the chorus of boos that greeted him at every plate appearance in his former home. For the second time in the series, he used the longball to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Any short-list of early candidates for National League Comeback Player of the Year must include LaRoche, who leads the team in batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.421), slugging (.582), home runs (6) and RBI (21). To put that in perspective, LaRoche owns a higher batting average, slugging percentage and more RBI than Cincinnati first baseman (and 2010 NL MVP) Joey Votto, who the Nats will see for a three-game set beginning tonight.
Washington, which will need to find an offensive lift here or there from the outfielders replacing Jayson Werth during his time on the shelf, found two of them Thursday night. Roger Bernadina flashed his power for the first time this year, dropping a home run to dead center field to open the sixth inning and get the Nationals on the board. Then in the ninth, with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead, Rick Ankiel found the seats in right for a huge insurance run to provide the final 4-2 margin of victory.
Strasburg will deservedly dominate Friday’s headlines, just as he did the Pittsburgh lineup, but the complete team effort was just the type of game a team that had dropped six consecutive road games and three straight overall needed before heading to face a tough opponent in Cincinnati. It was also a nice reminder that as historically good as everyone in the rotation has been, Strasburg will continue to set the bar.