The Washington Nationals' bullpen was taxed. Jordan Zimmerman was knocked out of last night's game early.
The Nationals rallied to beat the Miami Marlins on Saturday, but it took a strong effort by the Nats' relievers, so there weren't too many arms available and anything short of a six-or-seven-inning outing by 25-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg might have caused problems.
When the Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick was lifted with two down in the seventh, having given up a run on a home run by Marcell Ozuna and a walk in what was then a 2-1 game in Washington's favor, he was at 98 pitches and 12 Ks.
"I just felt like I was cruising and felt strong. And I was definitely seeing the finish line, but you've got to come out when skip goes out there and takes the ball out of your hand."
Nats' skipper Matt Williams said Strasburg probably could have kept going, but he gave them enough.
"I think he gave us all he had today," Williams said, "and it set up so we could bring [Jerry Blevins] in and [Aaron] Barrett behind him of course, so it was good, it worked out."
Blevins threw a 1-1 sinker to pinch hitter Reed Johnson, inducing an inning-ending groundout then came back out for the eighth inning, striking left-handed hitters Christian Yelich and Derek Dietrich out before handing the ball over to Barrett, who battled Giancarlo Stanton before striking the Marlins' slugger out with a filthy 2-2 slider.
"It was great," Williams said of Strasburg's effort. "Shortened the pen. He pitched really well. Used his fastball, kept his pitch count down today. So, that's just an example of strike one, so, he pitched well."
Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 26 batters he faced. Of his 98 total pitches, he threw 76 fastballs, 22 changeups (though some might have been sliders) and 10 breaking balls.
"He threw some breaking balls, threw a few sliders," Williams said. "But anybody that throws that hard, as a hitter, you have to be in swing-mode expecting fastball certainly and his changeup was really good off of it today and he used it a lot."
Strasburg's success today, his manager said, was about establishing his fastball.
"The key for Stephen is to be able to throw the fastball for a strike in and he set it up nice," Williams told reporters after what ended up being a 7-1 win.
"I just think he established the fastball early and again, they came out aggressive and that happens with Stephen. Teams swing early against him, so he was able to establish it and work his changeup off of it and strike one is the key."
Asked about the devastating change he was throwing today, Strasburg said it's been there all along, it just works better after he's established the fastball.
"I think it's been there for the most part all year," he said. "It just works better when I attack the strike zone early."
"You want to get anybody, as a hitter, in swing-mode and get them looking for fastball and throw them something else," Williams explained. "But you have to establish that first and he did that today. So, it's 95 [mph]+ and it's got a little movement and then when he can throw his changeup off of it, it looks like a fastball coming out of his hand. And it's got some depth to it, so you end up swinging over the top of it. But it was really good. Pounding the zone."
Strasburg struck out seven of the 12 batters he K'd with changeups and the rest went down on fastballs.
The Nationals needed a strong outing and their no.1 starter came through.
"It's what you try to go out there and do every time," he said afterwards. "Go out there and pitch to contact, keep the pitch count down so you can go out there and get deep into the ballgame."
"You try not to think about that too much," he said of saving the bullpen. "You don't want to go out there and be thinking, 'Nine inning, nine innings,' you really want to go out there and go one inning at a time and just focus on every pitch and it's all just about the mindset and that's got to stay the same and I'm just glad I was able to go out there and go somewhat deep into the game, and give them a little rest."
Blevins, Barrett and Rafael Soriano took the Nationals the rest of the way and a five-run eighth in which Bryce Harper took a bases loaded walk and Ian Desmond hit a grand slam busted things open.
The Nationals swept the three-game series with the Marlins, but as soon as it was over, Williams said it was time to turn the page and get ready for this weekend's series with the Braves in Atlanta.
"Today is over," he said. "This series is over, and we have to look forward to tomorrow."
Strasburg's line: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 12 Ks, 1 HR.