WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg had just reached for his hamstring on the mound, so Nationals manager Dave Martinez wanted to check on him. Strasburg fights off cramps often during the course of his outings, but he was already 109 pitches into, perhaps, his most dominant performance in a postseason filled with them and the Cardinals had collected back-to-back hits with one out in the seventh.
So Martinez brought out head athletic trainer Paul Lessard to check on Strasburg. It was a brief meeting.
“I'm staying in the game,” Martinez recalled Strasburg telling him. “I want to finish this inning,”
“You sure you're all right?” Martinez asked.
“I’m in the game,” Strasburg responded emphatically. Martinez looked to his catcher, Kurt Suzuki, for input.
“Let him finish,” Suzuki chimed in.
“Hey, you don't have to twist my arm,” Martinez replied.
Here, with the Nationals well on their way to an 8-1 win in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Strasburg was channeling his rotation-mate Max Scherzer with the kind of “get out of my way, this is my game” conviction commonly associated with Scherzer. This is October, where Strasburg reaches a different level -- and each time he takes the mound, carves out more of his place in history. He needed just eight more pitches to reward Martinez’s faith in him, polishing off his outing with strikeouts of both Matt Wieters and Dexter Fowler (both swinging) to help put his team on the cusp of the pennant.
The Nationals are one win away from the World Series. They blitzed the Cardinals on Monday night in the first NLCS game in Nationals Park history, thanks to another dominant postseason start from Strasburg. He struck out 12 without issuing a walk in seven masterful innings, limiting the Cardinals’ lineup to one unearned run and a fair share of perplexed looks on the way back to the visitors' dugout.
It was the latest in a line of dominant postseason outings from Strasburg. He lowered his postseason ERA to 1.10, the third lowest in MLB history (minimum six starts) trailing only Sandy Koufax (0.95) and Christy Mathewson (1.06). Strasburg has made six career postseason starts and recorded at least 10 strikeouts in four of them. He became just the fifth pitcher in postseason history with multiple games of at least a dozen strikeouts.
“It’s so impressive to me, when the crowd was the loudest, in the biggest moments, is when he seems to be, at least it looks like, he’s his calmest,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “And you have to be able to stay calm if you’re going to execute your offspeed pitches in the way that he was all night long…. it was another really, really impressive outing by him tonight.”
This city has been waiting for this day, when Nationals Park would host an NLCS game, and a palpable buzz filled the ballpark in the moments leading up to the first pitch. A sold-out crowd of 43,675 fans were champing at the bit, waiting for any reason to erupt in cheers. Strasburg and the offense gave them plenty of reasons to do so.
He began the night with a 1-2-3 first inning and a pair of strikeouts on 10 pitches, dialing up his four-seam fastball to 96-97 mph, a few ticks up from his regular-season average (93.9 mph). He didn’t carry a no-hitter deep into the game like Aníbal Sánchez and Scherzer did in the first two games of the series, but even though he scattered seven hits, he pitched his way out of jams -- such as they were -- with ease. His 12 strikeouts were all recorded on offspeed pitches and all but two came thanks to his changeup.
“It looks like a fastball until it gets to the cut of the dirt, then it starts to either sink or run,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “It kind of takes on both. The guy’s good, man.”
Washington has ridden the arms of its starting pitchers to a commanding 3-0 NLCS lead, an advantage only one of 37 teams (the 2004 Yankees) has blown in MLB postseason history. Of the 36 teams to win after going up 3-0, 29 finished the sweep in Game 4.
When Strasburg returned to the dugout after his final inning, he knew what was coming so he decided to just accept it. After his final start of the regular season, Gerardo Parra ambushed him in the dugout and started a group hug that caught Strasburg off guard. But these Nationals are one win away from the World Series, so even the normally stoic Strasburg is in a hugging mood. He embraced Parra, waited for Sánchez to join in and eventually Scherzer, who spent the night celebrating all over the dugout, came over to join in.
“I'm not much of a hugger,” Strasburg said. “But they kind of just surround me. So I just have to take it.”