MIAMI -- The Nationals have several different starting pitchers capable of playing the role of “stopper.” It’s one of the benefits of investing so heavily in the rotation, being able to lean on their starter to pick up a victory when the team is in need.
Stephen Strasburg became the latest to answer the call. He dominated the Marlins for eight shutout innings with 11 strikeouts on Sunday afternoon, leading the Nationals to a 5-0 victory -- without their best hitter in third baseman Anthony Rendon -- to avoid a three-game sweep. In the process, Strasburg notched a club milestone, becoming the club’s all-time leader in career innings pitched in a Nationals uniform.
“It’s huge,” manager Dave Martinez said. “He comes out there today, day game after a night game and shoves. He really does.”
Strasburg never gave the Marlins much of a chance Sunday afternoon.
He scattered a pair of hits and pair of walks across eight innings. He threw his curveball more frequently than any other pitch and it generated 12 swinging strikes and six called strikes. After his last start, Strasburg wondered if he was getting too predictable with his fastball early in counts, allowing hitters to sit on it. He threw only 13 fastballs in 104 pitches in this outing.
When the Nats say they are confident in Strasburg’s ability to pitch with diminished fastball velocity (his fastball averaged just 93.1 mph in this game, down from 95.6 last April), they can point to efforts like Sunday when he was still dominant without it.
“I have a lot of trust in my curveball,” Strasburg said. “I get myself in trouble when I don’t go to it enough. It really kind of sets up my other pitches and keeps them from ambushing as much off my fastball early in the count.”
By recording an out in the second inning, Strasburg achieved the team record for most innings thrown in a Nats uniform, surpassing his old friend and teammate Gio Gonzalez for the most in club history (2005-present). The record did not mean much to him -- he already mentioned what he has to do in his next start -- but it is still a significant accomplishment for a pitcher who arrived in D.C. amid so much hype, has battled through so many injuries and ups and downs in his career.
And even as the cast around him has changed, Strasburg remains one of Washington’s most important players, capable of a spinning a dominant performance like Sunday's.
“We’re lucky, every guy in our rotation has a chance to be a stopper,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But Stephen threw the ball well today. It was fun to see that, kind of attacking the hitters and going right at them.”
Nationals players unhappy with conditions Sunday
The roof at Marlins Park was open for a sunny, 78-degree day in Miami, which made for a gorgeous sight for Sunday’s series finale, but not the best conditions for hitting.
A few Nationals hitters were upset about the decision to play a day game with the roof open because of the shadows created across the diamond, which covered home plate by the second inning and covered most of the field as the game went on.
“We just feel like it’s more of a safety thing than anything else,” Nats right fielder Adam Eaton said. “Somebody is going to hang their nose out on a curveball that doesn’t break and not be able to see it because you can’t pick up spin."
On Sunday afternoon, there were 24 strikeouts in the game combined and the two starting pitchers, Strasburg and Marlins starter Trevor Richards, combined for 18 of their own. It was even difficult to see in the dugout, where Martinez joked he panicked a few times because he could not see the ball.
“It’s an enormous factor,” said Zimmerman, who went 2-for-4 on the day with two home runs.
“It’s awful. I mean, I don’t understand why you would play a game like that if you don’t have to.”
Eaton added: “It’s like you’re standing in a closet about 10-feet deep and then you throw a baseball in there. You see it and then all of a sudden, it just disappears.”