If there is any positive to take out of last night's loss, which was the third straight to the New York Mets and the sixth overall to the NL East leaders, outside of Bryce Harper's continued, impressive production, it has to be the fact that Stephen Strasburg returned to the mound after missing a turn in the rotation with an upper back issue and made it through seven-plus innings in which he struck out 13 batters.
Going into the start, which followed a nine-day layoff in which Strasburg tested his back in bullpen sessions, Nationals' skipper Matt Williams told reporters that the 27-year-old right-hander was eager to get back to work.
"He's been off a little while," Williams said in an MLB Network Radio interview on Wednesday.
"His last start had a little bit of an issue with his upper back, so the bullpens have been good for him and he's anxious to get out there."
Before the latest back problem interrupted his season yet again, Strasburg was on something of a roll -- following his first DL stint of the season -- which saw the '09 no.1 overall pick go (5-1) in eight starts with a 2.17 ERA, seven walks (1.38 BB/9), 53 Ks (10.45 K/9) and a .183/.216/.329 line against in 45 ⅔ innings pitched.
He gave up a single in a scoreless first and a solo home run by Travis d'Arnaud in the second, then went on to retire twelve straight batters and 17 of the next 19, striking out 12 and giving up just a one-out walk to Curtis Granderson in the sixth and a two-out single by d'Arnaud in the seventh and completing seven innings on 91 pitches.
Williams stuck with Strasburg for the eighth, with the Nationals ahead, 2-1, which wasn't too surprising given the low pitch count and recent issues with the Nats' bullpen, but three pitches into the inning, the game was tied at 2-2 after pinch hitter Kelly Johnson sent a 2-0 fastball to right for the Mets' second solo blast of the night.
Strasburg struck out Kirk Nieuwenhuis, collecting his 13th K, but a one-out single to center by Granderson ended his night.
"Stephen was really good," Williams said after the game, and after Drew Storen came on for Strasburg and gave up a go-ahead home run by Yoenis Cespedes in what ended up a 5-3 loss.
"Sent him back out for the eighth, he was feeling good. The two runs were a couple of solo homers, but other than that he pitched really, really well."
Williams said he was willing to stick with Strasburg as long as he could to try to give his relievers a break.
"Our whole bullpen has been beat up pretty good," he explained.
"That's why we let Stephen get in the eighth and he's pitching well, unfortunately got behind Kelly and he hit a homer to tie it.
"He worked through Nieuwenhuis but Granderson got on and we've got go get Drew for Cespedes."
Strasburg threw 103 pitches total, 62 of them fastballs, which averaged 95.9 mph and got up to 98, five changeups, one sinker and 35 curves, getting eight swings and misses and 25 strikes that were not put in play with the breaking ball, according to Brooksbaseball.net, which was put in play just twice for just one hit.
Mets' skipper Terry Collins told reporters after the win that he was impressed with the Nationals' starter.
"I've seen [Stephen] a lot," Collins said, "and tonight's the best stuff I've seen him have. And I mean, I've seen him where he's been 98, but that curveball tonight, we didn't put it in play I don't think. He was really, really good and I know he's had some time off and maybe the rest helped him, but there were very few positive vibes going through early in the game.
"He was on and we knew it and we were just hoping that maybe we could work some counts and get him out of there, because he was tough to hit."
"Stephen threw the ball extremely well tonight," Ian Desmond said.
"Went to the changeup late. Usually he shows the changeup a little bit earlier than tonight. He only threw a few of them, but he threw the heck out of his curveball and he was locating his fastball. Coming off the year that he's had that was a big-time performance."
It wasn't enough, of course, as the Nationals were swept in the three-game set and fell 7.0 games behind in the NL East.
Strasburg took the loss, falling to (8-7) on the year after 19 starts in which he's put up a 4.30 ERA, a 3.37 FIP, 22 walks (2.01 BB/9), 111 Ks (10.16 K/9) and a .252/.300/.420 line against in 98 ⅓ innings pitched.
"Stephen pitched really well," Williams said, "got us into the eighth. It's good for him. I'm happy to see him healthy."