With the World Series on the line, there’s arguably no pitcher the Washington Nationals would rather turn to while staring elimination in the face than Stephen Strasburg.
Yes, they started Max Scherzer in the NL Wild Card Game, only using Strasburg for three innings of relief during the game. But on the biggest stage of them all, as the team looks for any spark it can get, the calm dominance the right-hander brings is just what the Nats need.
This postseason, Strasburg boasts an impressive 1.93 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance, with the Nats winning each game he appeared in, including two do-or-die games.
Manager Dave Martinez continues to exude confidence ahead of Game 6 against the Houston Astros knowing that Strasburg is their starter with the season on the line.
“We have Stephen Strasburg on the mound,” Martinez said after the team’s Game 5 loss, “who has been unbelievable for us this year.
“The guys feel good. We were talking last night after the press conference, and they’re all upbeat. They don’t think that this -- this is way far from over. But like I said, they’re going to rest, get ready to play tomorrow, and win tomorrow.”
He continues to build an October legacy that still, somehow, is going under-the-radar. His 1.34 postseason ERA is fifth all-time among pitchers with at least 40 innings, behind only Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson, and Eddie Plank.
Of course, Strasburg isn’t focused on that. He’s solely focused on tonight and nothing else.
“Everybody can judge any pitcher,” Strasburg said. “I understand it’s a part of the game, but I think when you’re out there it’s about competing, and it’s about playing for the guy next to you, and doing everything you can to prepare and maximize the abilities you’ve been given.”
This postseason dominance comes on the heels of one of his most consistent seasons in the majors. In 2019, Strasburg recorded a career-high 18 wins, a stellar 3.32 ERA, and was second in the National League in bWAR behind only Jacob deGrom.
But most importantly, this was just the second time in his career that he avoided injury. The only other time he avoided the Injured List (formerly the Disabled List) was five years ago in 2014.
His health and performances are likely to make him an NL Cy Young finalist, even if he does fall short to someone like deGrom, or his teammate Max Scherzer.
For his manager, that was the key to such a successful season and now postseason...
“For me, my biggest thing with him is that he stayed healthy all year,” Martinez explained. “He’s pitching the best I’ve ever seen him pitch.”
In a way, while all of the raw stuff — albeit with a dip in velocity from the triple-digit fastball of the old days — that made him one of the highest-rated pitchers in MLB Draft history is still there on the mound, it feels like this year, a new Strasburg has emerged.
Statistically, he’s using much more of his offspeed than ever before. His fastball usage at a career-low 28.6%, while his curveball is way up at 30.7%, becoming his most-used pitch.
Having more confidence in going to his offspeed pitches has allowed him to fully grow into a more complete pitcher compared to the power pitcher he was when he first arrived in the bigs.
“He definitely has an unbelievable amount of confidence,” Martinez said before Strasburg’s Game 2 start. “He competes, not only as you guys will see him every five days, I see him every day. He’s constantly trying to get better, and he competes with himself to get himself better."
However, the most obvious difference is just how loose he looks in and around the clubhouse on a daily basis.
Before, Strasburg has often been more of a silent assassin. He was called upon every fifth day to take down opponents with a steely glare and unwavering expression of focus on the task.
This year has been light years away from that, as he’s fully bought into the fun and light-hearted atmosphere the whole team has been playing with all season.
"He’s been unbelievable in the clubhouse this year,” Martinez said. “I know you guys want me to talk about his dancing. His dancing is really good now. But he’s a lot of fun. He’s opened up to what we’re trying to do here as far as the culture. But he’s been incredible, really has."
Unlike Martinez, we definitely want to talk more about the dancing. If you had asked Nationals fans before the season who was least likely to dance in public, you have to imagine Strasburg would have been near the top of the survey.
Group hugs with Gerardo Parra and Aníbal Sánchez after Strasburg exits his starts are also must-see viewing. He even hugs them back now. If that’s not the sign of a new Strasburg, nothing is.
Maybe the Nationals’ season ends tonight in Houston. The Astros are a damn good team, just as they have proven in the last three games at Nationals Park and would be a deserving winner.
But counting out the Nationals when they have this postseason’s best pitcher going with their playoff lives on the line would be a mistake. Their backs are against the wall, but with Strasburg on the mound, they’re perfectly fine with that.