In four consecutive September starts, Washington Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg reached double-digits in Ks, something he'd done only once in his previous eighteen outings. It was his 14 K start against an overmatched Philly roster in Citizens Bank Park on September 15th that stood out among those outings, however, as the 27-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick matched his career-high in strikeouts and held the Nats' NL East rivals to one hit and one walk over eight scoreless innings on the mound in what ended up a 4-0 win.
Strasburg threw 105 pitches total in his eight innings on the mound in Philadelphia, 63 of them fastballs, (which sat at 96.6 mph average and got up to 98.4), 41 of them for strikes that were not put in play and got 17 swings and misses with his heater. He mixed in his changeup as well, (21 of them total), which got 10 swings and misses and his curveball (21) which got him 11 strikes that were not put in play.
As both now-former Nationals' manager Matt Williams and Nats' slugger Bryce Harper said after the game, it was all about Strasburg's fastball that night.
"I think that the biggest thing is he established low fastball," Williams said.
"Didn't used his changeup until about the fourth inning, but when he establishes low fastball he gets a lot of swings and misses on the changeup too.
"And then innings four-through-eight, used the changeup a lot and got a lot of guys to swing and miss at it. He was really good."
"When he establishes that heater, early in the game, down in the zone and then throws off that changeup, it's lights out," Harper told MASN's Dan Kolko after the win.
"There's nothing more you can say," Harper added. "He's unbelievable out there."
"It's a tough pitch to hit when you pound the bottom of the strike zone," Strasburg told reporters when asked about establishing his fastball down in the zone.
He wasn't, however, too interested in dissecting the outing, or discussing too much of what happened while he was on the mound.
"Just want to go out there and execute pitches," Strasburg said.
"I felt like my fastball command was a little bit spotty early on, but I just kept trusting it and just kept firing it in there and was able to get it under control later on."
"Stephen has had a frustrating year with all the mini-setbacks he's had," Williams said in discussing Strasburg's up and down 2015 campaign, which saw him land on the DL twice with an ankle issue, which led to back and mechanical issues and a separate oblique injury as well.
"It's nice to see that he's feeling good," Williams said. "Last two outings have been really good and he's back to form, back to where he wants to be and throwing it where he wants to."
The key, Williams explained, as the Nationals claimed all along, was that Strasburg was finally healthy and pitching without any concern about his mechanics, which were, they thought, thrown off by all the injury issues he dealt with early in the season.
"There's no issue with the back," Williams said. "There's no ankle issue, and he feels good when he goes out there, so I just think he was just in command the whole night, throwing it from the first pitch where he wanted to."
"I don't really worry about what the stuff is doing," Strasburg said.
"I just want to go out there and compete, and it worked for me tonight, that's great, but all I really was trying to do was go out there and leave it all out there on the field."
In 13 starts which followed his first DL stint, Strasburg was (8-2) with a 1.76 ERA, 12 walks and 110 Ks in 82 IP, over which he held opposing hitters to a combined .175/.208/.292 line, calming concerns about the numbers he put up in the first two months of the season.
After six seasons and 132 starts for the Nationals, the top pick in 2009, who signed a 4-year/$15.1M major league deal out of the Draft and earned $7.4M in 2015 after avoiding arbitration, is heading into his walk year, with free agency a possibility after this season if the Nats decide against trying to sign him to an extension before then.
If he can stay healthy, Strasburg showed the Nationals and the rest of the baseball world what he's capable of with his work late this season, but is Washington willing to give a long-term deal to a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and an up and down season like the one he just went through?
It's just one of many tough decisions GM Mike Rizzo has to deal with this winter... Is a compensation pick enough of a return if they let Strasburg walk after this season? Can they get more than they think that pick is worth if they trade him this winter, or at the deadline? Do they need him in the rotation if they are going to compete this season?