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250 K’s & a big hug Stras totally, definitely loved

@JamalCollier
September 26, 2019

WASHINGTON -- An unsuspecting Stephen Strasburg stood in the dugout Thursday evening after completing his outing -- which had put the finishing touches on one of the finest regular seasons of his career -- when Gerardo Parra went in for a hug. Aníbal Sánchez followed up from behind Strasburg to

WASHINGTON -- An unsuspecting Stephen Strasburg stood in the dugout Thursday evening after completing his outing -- which had put the finishing touches on one of the finest regular seasons of his career -- when Gerardo Parra went in for a hug. Aníbal Sánchez followed up from behind Strasburg to join in on the embrace. So did Juan Soto. Over came Victor Robles. Joe Ross and Michael A. Taylor joined in too for the impromptu group embrace, catching the normally introverted and stoic Strasburg off guard.

“They cornered me,” Strasburg said with a laugh after Thursday’s 6-3 win against the Phillies. “I had nowhere to go, so I just had to embrace it.”

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The Nationals insist they have noticed a different Strasburg off the field this season, one who is less ornery and serious and more open and relaxed. He danced with the team after hitting a home run earlier this season. Cameras have caught Strasburg smiling and laughing more frequently in the dugout and on the field, sights that used to be a rarity.

Most importantly, however, Strasburg has been the best and healthiest version of himself, taking the mound every fifth day this season to help guide this team to the postseason again. In six innings of one-run ball on Thursday, Strasburg struck out 10 and reached the 250-K mark for the first time in his career, helping lead the Nats to the first five-game sweep in franchise history, as they steamrolled the division-rival Phillies. It marked the 90th win of the season for Washington and helped the club maintain a one-game advantage over red-hot Milwaukee for the top National League Wild Card slot.

“He's a beast this year,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said prior to the game. “He really is. What he does in between his starts is very impressive. This guy hasn't missed a beat all year long, a testament to how hard he works. You guys see it every fifth day. I see it every day.”

The NL Wild Card Game, importantly, is five days away, and Strasburg could potentially appear in it on regular rest.

Washington has yet to name a starter, but all signs point to Max Scherzer getting the ball, especially after Martinez said this week that the Wild Card Game is “Max’s day” when he looked at the schedule. But the Nats expect to have all their starters available out of the bullpen for that win-or-go-home game, which means Strasburg could be tabbed to appear in relief for the first time in his career.

“I’m just here to help the ballclub in any way possible,” he said. “It’s going to take all 25 of us.”

Strasburg has acknowledged how unhappy he was with his performance last season, a year ruined by injuries and ineffectiveness that limited him to just 22 starts, his fewest since Tommy John surgery in 2011, while his ERA spiked to 3.74, the highest of his career. He remained in D.C. during the offseason to focus on working out with the team’s medical and training staff instead of returning to his hometown of San Diego. And the Nationals reaped the benefits in '19.

Strasburg made 33 starts this season, rebounding with a 3.32 ERA and a 3.26 FIP. His 209 innings pitched are the most in the NL. Only Jacob deGrom will finish with more strikeouts in the NL than Strasburg’s career high 251. At the start of the outing, Strasburg had been worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement, per Fangraphs, trailing only deGrom and his teammate Max Scherzer. Once again, when healthy, Strasburg is a legitimate candidate to win the NL Cy Young Award.

“I think it’s just part of the process of learning more about yourself and learning how to take care of your body better,” Strasburg said. “I work hard every offseason. It’s just mainly trying to piece the puzzle together. We’ve got a great training staff here, and they’ve given me a lot of help along the way.”

It’s unclear when Strasburg’s next start with the Nationals will take place, or whether his next appearance on the mound will be a start at all. Considering he could opt out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract in the offseason, perhaps this was even his final start as a National.

But what is clear is that this season the Nats saw a different side of Strasburg, one much more willing to embrace his role instead of shying away from it. He’s always quietly provided help to young pitchers, but several pitchers, including Erick Fedde and Tanner Rainey, have gone out of their way to praise his assistance. They might say, judging by the reaction Thursday, that Strasburg has become someone they want to reach out and hug.

“That’s my first hug in five years from him,” Taylor said with a smile.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.