Going into his final start of the season with the Washington Nationals' NL East rivals from Atlanta last week, 26-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg was (0-3) with a 7.17 ERA, five walks (2.11 BB/9) and 31 Ks (13.08 K/9) in four starts and 21 ⅓ IP over which Braves' hitters put up a .323/.363/.573 line against him.
After the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick threw seven scoreless innings on the mound in Turner Field, he talked at length with reporters about what allowed him to finally shut the Braves down.
"I think I've just gotten a little bit better at locating pitches," Strasburg explained, "and just understanding where the outs are in the lineup."
"I think it's just executing pitches," he continued. "They're a team that's really aggressive and they're going to go up there and hack and you just have to make good pitches and hopefully they hit it to one of our guys out there."
Next in line after Atlanta, were the Miami Marlins, against whom Strasburg was (1-2) in three starts this season with a 4.08 ERA, six walks (3.06 BB/9) and 21 Ks (10.70 K/9) in 17 ⅔ IP in which Fish hitters put up a .227/.301/.379 line against him.
In the bottom of the first inning on Sunday, Strasburg issued a one-out walk to Marlins' infielder Donovan Solano before getting a ground ball to third out of Casey McGehee with a 93 mph fastball inside that started an inning-ending 5-4-3.
The walk was the first Strasburg allowed in 28 innings of work over his last five-plus starts.
The second walk in the series finale in Miami followed quickly after the first when he issued a free pass to outfielder Marcell Ozuna in the first at bat of the bottom of the second inning, and a single by Justin Bour in the next at bat put two on with no one out.
A 2-2 change to Marlins' catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which was down in the zone and just off the outside corner, induced a grounder to second that started a 4-6-3 DP. A brutal 1-2 curve to Enrique Hernandez in the next at bat got the infielder/outfielder swinging to strand Ozuna on third and keep the Fish off the board through two.
Strasburg retired thirteen straight batters between Bour's single in the second and Christian Yelich's two-out single in the Marlins' sixth, but he pulled a groundout to third out of Solano after Yelich's hit, ending his next-to-last inning of work at just 76 pitches.
Ozuna doubled with one down in the seventh, but turned his ankle going into second and was tagged out when he tumbled by the base. Bour ripped into a 1-2 fastball down and in in the next at bat, and grounded sharply to first to end Strasburg's outing with the 11th ground ball out of the day from the Marlins.
Nats' reliever Rafael Soriano gave up a run in the ninth, but the two runs the Nationals scored in the fifth inning were enough to give them their fourth straight win over Miami.
Strasburg earned his 13th win of the season.
Why was he so successful on the mound on Sunday?
"Just again, pounding the zone," manager Matt Williams said after the game.
"Really good changeups. Good curveballs, early in the count when he needed a strike. Pretty good fastball command today too. So he just continues to pitch well."
Williams talked with reporters about the double plays that allowed Strasburg to work his way out of trouble in each of the first two frames.
"Generally, the double play either comes from lack of velocity or from location," he said. "The ball to McGehee is in, down and in, it's tough to elevate that pitch and so, that's a perfect pitch in that regard.
"He doesn't throw a sinker, per se, but the ball does move a little bit and if it's down it moves down."
Strasburg echoed his manager's assessment of the outing when he spoke to reporters after the start.
Getting out of trouble early, he said, was just a matter of focusing on his command and pitch selection.
"Just wanted to stick with it and keep pounding the zone," Strasburg said, "and got some big double plays there in the beginning to kind of give me a chance to settle down without any damage."
Getting the double plays he needed, Strasburg explained, was a matter of simply making the right pitch.
"I think it's just executing the right pitch at the right time," he said.
"It's not going to always happen that way. I think the one thing you can control is execution and just knowing what pitch will get you the result that you want."
Strasburg wouldn't allow himself to get rattled, which is something he's been working on all season.
"I'm just trying to stay the same," he said. "I think over the course of the season you're going to have highs and lows and you've just got to roll with them."
In four September starts, Strasburg now has a 1.38 ERA, a 2.05 FIP, two walks (0.69 BB/9), 25 Ks (8.65 K/9) and a .209/.239/.303 line against in 26 IP.
So has the strong finish ensured that he'll be handed the ball in the first postseason game?
"No, we haven't made any decision on that yet," Williams said when asked. "We've still got games left. We still have a lot of games left. Seven of them, as a matter of fact, so we'll get a day off tomorrow which will be good, everybody needs one, and back at it on Tuesday, but we haven't made any decision on that yet."
The first-year manager is, however, happy with the way Strasburg's throwing as the regular seasons ends and as he's passed previous season-highs in starts and innings pitched.
"He's strong," Williams said. "He feels strong. So that's the indicator. The indicator is that his body feels good. His legs are strong. He works really hard in-between starts. So, the indicator for me is he's crisp, he's throwing strikes and he feels good about it. Any more than that you couldn't ask for."
Strasburg too is obviously happy with the recent results and also unwilling to look too far ahead.
"I"m really excited," he said of pitching in the postseason for the first time, "but at the same time, I'm trying not to focus on it too much just yet. I definitely want to finish the season strong."
He and the Nationals are rolling in September.
"It's huge," Strasburg said of the way they're finishing the regular season schedule. "Just got to keep the train rolling."
• We talked about Strasburg's latest outing, the postseason rotation and more on the latest edition of Nats Nightly: