Strasburg tips pitches, adjusts, then dominates
'I just gave it everything I had,' righty says of 8 1/3-inning G6 start
HOUSTON -- Each ball jumped off the bat, the contact loud and hard, so the Nationals wondered what was up.
The Astros were all over Stephen Strasburg in the first inning Tuesday, from his first pitch of the game -- a double off the wall from George Springer -- until the last of the frame, a flyout from Yuli Gurriel corralled deep on the warning track. Houston did not whiff on any of the 13 pitches Strasburg threw and ended the inning with a one-run lead after José Altuve's sacrifice fly and Alex Bregman's solo home run.
In the video room, Jonathan Tosches, the Nationals’ manager for advanced scouting, picked up on something in Strasburg’s delivery and felt he might be tipping his pitches. It was the same tic he was doing earlier in the season that led to two rough starts against the D-backs, and Tosches relayed the message to pitching coach Paul Menhart. Normally, Strasburg does not like to be bothered with much in the midst of a game, but this was Game 6 of the World Series, a must-win for the Nats to save their season, and Menhart felt like they had to change it up.
Strasburg immediately bought in and made an adjustment to protect his glove -- “shaking” it, he told MLB Network’s Tom Verducci. He retired the next eight batters in a row.
“He had more confidence knowing that he didn’t feel like they knew what was coming,” Menhart said after the Nationals’ 7-2 victory at Minute Maid Park. “Probably one of the more dominant pitching performances you’re going to see in a must-win situation.”
Once again with the Nationals’ season on the line, Strasburg was brilliant, delivering one of his best pitching performances in a postseason full of them and extending their season for another day. He shut down the most prolific offense in baseball for the rest of the night, tossing 8 1/3 innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts and two walks to help the Nats stave off elimination.
No starting pitcher since Curt Schilling's complete game in Game 5 of the 1993 Fall Classic had recorded an out in the ninth inning with his team facing elimination in the World Series. Strasburg will likely finish as the first player in MLB history to go 5-0 across a single postseason. He struck out 47 batters this month, tied with Gerrit Cole for the most in the playoffs, and the second most in postseason history. In nine career postseason appearances, Strasburg has a 1.46 ERA with 71 strikeouts and eight walks.
Not too long ago, Strasburg’s October legacy was more about what he had not done than what he had accomplished, from the infamous shutdown in 2012 to the injuries that sidelined him in ‘16. Since then, he has become one of the best pitchers in postseason history. The questions about Strasburg have always been a bit misguided, but he’s spent this month smashing any lingering doubts with a hammer.
“Everything happens for a reason, the ups, the downs, it only makes you stronger mentally,” Strasburg said. “I think without those things, it would’ve been a lot harder to focus on what I can control out there.”
A lot harder, perhaps, to stay calm amid all the chaos.
For instance, shortly after the Nationals took a one-run lead in the top of the fifth, the Astros looked poised to respond. They put runners on second and third with one out for the red-hot Altuve, but Strasburg struck him out on three pitches. The next batter, Michael Brantley, made solid contact but hit it right at Trea Turner, and Strasburg escaped the jam.
Or take the moment in the seventh inning, with the Nats' entire dugout worked up after a disputed interference call on Turner running to first base. Strasburg calmly jogged right past his irate manager and headed toward the mound to continue picking apart a historically good lineup. He needed just 11 pitches to toss a scoreless seventh and only five pitches to sit down the heart of Houston's lineup in the eighth.
In the past, Strasburg caught criticism for how he responded in these moments, but now he appears at ease even with a sold-out crowd of 43,384 waiting for a chance to erupt.
“It’s been a process,” he said. “I think I’ve been under a microscope my whole career. You’ve just got to mature and you’ve got to experience it and learn to deal with it in your own way. That’s all it is.”
Strasburg went back out to start the ninth inning, but he admitted by that point he was gassed and never was a candidate to finish the game. He’s only finished two games in his 10-year career, but complete games are personal accomplishments and he’s not interested in those. What Strasburg wants is for the Nationals to finish this magical postseason run, even though he’s taking his name out of the running to pitch in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Strasburg has done his part -- on Tuesday night and all month -- to put Washington one win away from a World Series championship.
“I just gave it everything I had,” Strasburg said. “And I'm pretty tired.”