Washington Nationals' skipper Matt Williams was asked after Stephen Strasburg's four-inning outing against the San Francisco Giants last weekend in D.C., if the 26-year-old '09 no.1 overall pick was still in the process of discovering just who he was as a pitcher and finding a style that was best suited to his talents?
"I don't think so," Williams responded. "I think he's established who he is and how he's going to go about doing it. He's got wonderful talent and the ability to throw the ball in the mid-to-high 90s. And then that's great, but he's like nobody else. Everybody's got to be able to throw where they want to and if you don't, if you leave the ball in the middle of the plate, you have a chance to get it hit. And that was the case today. The last two outings, that wasn't the case, he threw really well and threw it exactly where he wanted to."
Against the Giants, however, the location just wasn't there.
Strasburg threw 79 pitches, 49 of them strikes, gave up eight hits, two of them home runs, and two walks before he was done for the day in his second four-inning outing of the year.
How would he bounce back against the Seattle Mariners?
Strasburg took the mound in Safeco Field for the first time in his career on Saturday night and put together what was arguably his best start of the season.
The Nats' right-hander threw 7 ⅔ scoreless before the no.2 overall pick of the 2009 Draft, Dustin Ackley, tagged a 96 mph 2-2 fastball and broke up Strasburg's bid for a shutout with a solo home run that made it 3-1 Nationals in the eighth.
The pitch to Ackley was Strasburg's last.
He ended the night at 95 pitches, with six hits and the one earned run allowed. Strasburg collected eight Ks, six groundouts and seven fly ball outs from the 29 batters he faced.
"I think this was the best that we've seen him all year," Williams said after the series-clinching win, "and probably the most important.
"He was really, really commanding [his] fastball. Fastballs at 96-97 mph and the changeup off of it, throwing the changeup for a strike when he wanted to, for a strike too. He was really good tonight."
Why was it the "most important" start for Strasburg?
"Just the fact that he had two good ones and then a little bit of a clunker," Williams explained. "And tonight to come back and answer for him is important.
"For him, it's just that if he throws it where he wants to, then he can be dominant out there. Tonight he was really, really good."
Given a 2-0 lead to work with by Jayson Werth, who hit a two-run home run to left off Mariners' lefty Roenis Elias in the top of the first, Strasburg set the tone for the evening with a quick, five-pitch, 1-2-3 bottom of the first inning.
He pitched around a leadoff single in an 18-pitch second and froze Robinson Cano with a 97 mph 1-2 fastball that was called strike three to end a 14-pitch third after he'd given up back-to-back one-out hits to put two on with two out in front of the Mariners' .325-hitting second baseman.
Strasburg made it four straight Ks after striking Cano out when he struck out the side in a truly dominant 12-pitch, 1-2-3 fourth against Kendrys Morales, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison.
Williams said that was the stretch that showed him Strasburg was really rolling.
"He went through Cano, Morales and Seager, maybe one other guy in the middle of the game, throwing strictly fastball and changeup," Williams said, "and [that] certainly gets guys in swing-mode throwing that hard and then he threw the changeup off it and he was really good from then on."
Jesus Sucre and Austin Jackson hit back-to-back two-out singles in the fifth, but Strasburg dropped a filthy 0-2 change out of the zone to get Ackley chasing for the final out of a 17-pitch frame that left him at 66 pitches overall.
A 12-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth with Ks from Cano and Morales and a fly to left from Seager, was followed by a seven-pitch seventh in which he retired the Mariners' 6-7 and 8 hitters in order. Two outs into the eighth, Ackley took him deep and ended Strasburg's 29th start of the season.
After Rafael Soriano locked down his 30th save, Strasburg got the win, improving to (11-10) on the year with a 3.49 ERA, a 3.12 FIP, 40 walks (1.97 BB/9) and 210 Ks (10.33 K/9) in 183 IP.
Strasburg's sixth strikeout of the night, a backwards K of Logan Morrison in the seventh, was his 208th, which set a Nationals' single-season record for strikeouts by a Nats' pitcher:
Williams wasn't the only one who was impressed by Strasburg's outings.
After the game, Werth told reporters he and Nats' center fielder Denard Span discussed what they saw while they were standing in the outfield during the pitching change in the eighth.
"We were in the outfield talking and Denard was saying just how he's never seen him pitch like that," Werth recalled.
"Throwing different pitches in different in different spots than he'd usually seen him pitch. I don't know, maybe he had some different plan going today, but whatever it was, it worked."