WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg knew. In fact, it was his idea all along. When Strasburg proclaimed to manager Dave Martinez that he was ready to be available out of the bullpen for Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game, he made the necessary adjustments -- both mentally and physically -- ahead of his first big league relief appearance after 242 starts.
It was hardly a question of whether the Nationals were going to use Strasburg on Tuesday, but when -- and for how long. In the event that Max Scherzer scuffled, Strasburg knew his name would be called. And when it was, his three lights-out innings set the table for Juan Soto’s heroics; for Daniel Hudson’s first postseason save; for Washington’s longed-for first win in an elimination playoff game, 4-3, over the Brewers.
“What can you say about Stras?” Martinez said. “He comes in out of the bullpen and shuts them down, gives us a chance to get back in the game. You guys [saw] the rest.”
When the air was decompressed from the 42,993 in attendance after Scherzer allowed a pair of home runs in the first two innings, it was time to discuss just when Martinez would make the call for Strasburg.
Ultimately, Scherzer was allowed to gut through five. Both Strasburg and Hudson were warming in the fifth when Scherzer had two men on, but his leash was extended and he punctuated his outing with a strikeout of Keston Hiura.
So finally, facing a 3-1 deficit and with The White Stripes blaring on the Nats’ PA system, in trotted Strasburg for the sixth.
“I treated it like a start as best I could,” Strasburg said. “You try and prepare mentally. And once I was going to go in there, I was going to go multiple innings.”
In the bullpen, the relievers who watched his warmup routine for the first time midgame saw the same old Stras. The same one who has become one of baseball’s most effective starters behind a composure that’s equally stoic and threatening when in the box.
“He's so mellow, man,” Hudson said. “He's just out there doing what he does, and that's dominating.”
The buzz after Strasburg strode to the mound may have hit a brief lull with his leadoff single to Ryan Braun. But he rebounded for a quick double play before tallying four strikeouts and stranding a two-out double in the eighth on just 34 pitches, 26 of which were for strikes.
“It was amazing,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “I've had the luxury of catching all these guys all season long. Nothing they do amazes me because they always find a way to do something better, and tonight he was amazing.”
It continued a streak of postseason dominance for Strasburg, his first outing since his famous Game 4 in Chicago in the 2017 NL Division Series. That postseason ERA? It now sits at just 0.41. Those performances made the decision of Strasburg or Scherzer for the Wild Card Game all the more challenging.
But the result -- there’s no argument anymore.
“I think the last three or four years, Stephen has really turned the corner as a professional,” said franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman. “He came up with so much hype, he was so young -- he’s matured so much over the last three or four years. Things that used to bother him don’t bother him anymore. … He’s such a competitor. Can't say enough about him as a person.”