Strasburg thriving under postseason pressure

October 6th, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- There was a time where this would’ve sounded like a fantasy to fans in D.C., going to his manager and demanding to pitch in the playoffs. Nationals manager Dave Martinez left it up to Strasburg to determine if he felt good enough to pitch in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, three days after a 34-pitch relief appearance in the NL Wild Card Game. The reality is, however, Strasburg has always wanted to pitch.

Sometimes it was his body that wouldn’t let him pitch in the postseason. One time his own team wouldn’t let him. But Strasburg proved once again Friday night that he wants the ball, and he came through with a gutsy performance when the Nationals needed him. Strasburg carried a perfect game into the fifth inning, limiting the Dodgers to one run in six innings on two days’ rest to help the Nationals even up the NLDS at a game apiece with a 4-2 victory on Friday night.

It was the kind of performance Washington will need from its starting pitchers if it’s going to make a deep run this month. And Strasburg, once again, was up to the task.

“I'm very routine-oriented,” Strasburg said. “I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it, but now it's kind of, at this point in my career, it's just another challenge.”

It’s another challenge that Strasburg mastered as he begins to build an impressive October resume. With his latest gem, Strasburg’s postseason ERA dropped to 0.64, the lowest in postseason history (minimum four starts), besting Sandy Koufax’s 0.95 ERA, according to MLB Stats.

When Strasburg gets on the mound in the playoffs, good things tend to happen for the Nationals. He took the ball when he was battling the flu in the 2017 NLDS, winning an elimination game on the road against the Cubs. He took the ball out of the bullpen during the Wild Card Game on Tuesday, even though he hadn’t pitched in relief since college. And then he did it again Friday night, striking out 10 without a walk while limiting the Dodgers to three hits.

In three of his five postseason starts, he has recorded double-digit strikeouts, the first pitcher in MLB history to do so.

“I just learned over the years that pressure's a funny thing, and I think it's something that you have complete control over,” Strasburg said. “There's obviously a lot of expectations, there's a lot of excitement in games, but I really tried over the years to train my mind into thinking that every single game is just as important and just sticking to my approach.”

His approach from the regular season carried over as well. He threw the Dodgers a steady stream of curveballs, 34 of his 85 pitches, to keep them off balance. He induced 20 swings and misses, the most by any Nationals pitcher in a postseason game since that famous "flu game," when he got 23 whiffs.

And he did it all on two days’ rest, against the NL’s highest-scoring offense and on the road. Strasburg acknowledged he began to feel fatigued late in the game, which is why he was taken out with 85 pitches after six innings. But he had done his job and nearly willed the Nats to victory.

If this series returns to Dodger Stadium for a decisive Game 5, Strasburg is almost certain to get the ball again.

“Stras was on top of his game,” said Max Scherzer, who helped preserve Strasburg’s win with a scoreless eighth inning of relief. “He did an unbelievable job for us ... pitching on short rest from the Wild Card Game and going out there and delivering stuff like that when we needed it.”