"He seemed to get stronger as the game went on," Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson said as he talked to reporters about Stephen Strasburg's fourteenth start of 2012. "Great seven innings out of him," the 69-year-old skipper boasted. The Nats' 23-year-old ace K'd 10 and allowed five hits, two walks and two runs Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Rays, throwing 111 pitches, 70 of them strikes and ending his outing with a 95 fastball to Desmond Jennings that got the 25-year-old outfielder swinging for the second of back-to-back outing-ending K's in a 12-pitch inning.
"Last time out I think he threw 88 or 89 pitches," Johnson continued, explaining that he was willing to let Strasburg go a little longer on Wednesday after a start against Toronto which ended early after the pitcher accidently cut his own finger while trimming his nails between innings. "I was going to probably up to 120 pitches with him," the Nats' manager said, "Especially after the fifth, sixth, he seemed to get stronger in the sixth [and] he turned it up a notch in the seventh. Hated to hook him."
After Strasburg, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard followed with a scoreless inning each and the Nats earned a win a night after Rays' lefty David Price had beaten them in the series opener. The win also snapped a four-game losing streak, and the Nationals improved to 12-2 when the '09 no.1 overall pick takes the mound. After Gio Gonzalez led the Nationals to victory in the series finale, the Nationals held a 23-5 record when one of their top two starters took the mound. Strasburg earned a win in his sixth-straight start Wednesday night. In four June outings, the right-hander has a 2.08 ERA, 1.56 FIP, five walks (1.73 BB/9) and 40 K's (13.85 K/9) in 26.0 IP.
Before Thursday night's games, Strasburg had the NL's 9th lowest ERA (2.46), the second-lowest FIP (2.26) and highest K/9 (11.79). "He's a true no.1," his manger beamed, "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him. He's awful hard on himself. When he throws a 2-0 fastball to [Jose] Molina," on the one home run he allowed on Tuesday night, "[He says], 'That's not the pitch I wanted to throw,'" Davey Johnson explained, "Or, 'That's not the location I wanted that in.' He's at the point where he trusts the catcher a whole lot and he and [Jesus Flores] think pretty much on the same lines. They kind of help each other. But Stephen's getting more and more... I think it comes with experience about his pitch selection and he likes to use all his pitches and then, of course, later in the game he just went back to the fastball and just located it real well."
"I don't want to go into detail about his game plan," Johnson said, "But he does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it and then as he gets into the game where he has confidence in all his pitches he gets to feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it. That's basically his game plan. A pretty good one."
Is the Nationals' game plan for Strasburg this year a good one? Are they actually going to follow through on their stated plan of shutting the right-hander down when they think he's had enough? Yes and yes in my opinion. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo has explained several times that the idea of a hard 160.0 inning limit is a media creation, but he's also said that there will come a point this summer (or in the Fall) when Strasburg will be shut down. CSNWashington.com's Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughes), Dave Nichols from the District Sports Page (@Nationals DSP) and I talked Strasburg this past Sunday after the Nationals dropped the third of three to the visiting New York Yankees: