Dec 22, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We begin today with significant moment No. 10: Stephen Strasburg’s first career shutout…
Though his season as a whole often felt like an ongoing struggle, Stephen Strasburg made some real significant strides along the way. He pitched straight through September, setting career-highs in starts (30) and innings (183). He overcame some of the mental hurdles that seemed to plague him earlier in his career, and earlier this season, such as brushing off defensive mistakes made behind him. And, most significantly, he took an all-important step for any young ace: He finished what he started.
Strasburg had never so much as taken the mound for the eighth inning in his first three professional seasons until he got over that hump May 16 in his hometown of San Diego. Three months later, he took it a step farther, taking the mound for the ninth inning for the first time. And he didn’t return to the dugout until the game was over and he had secured the first complete game of his career.
And it wasn’t merely a complete game, but also a 4-hit shutout of the Phillies.
After handling their phenom right-hander with kid gloves as a rookie and then later during his return from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals were determined to loosen the reins this year. It happened gradually over the course of the spring and summer, and then it really happened on Aug. 11 at Nationals Park during a rare, Sunday evening ballgame.
The odd, 5:05 p.m. starting time may have helped Strasburg’s cause, with shadows making the task of seeing the ball even tougher than usual, but he won this game as much with guile as he did with pure stuff.
Strasburg felt off during his pregame warmup session in the bullpen, then tweaked his groin during the second inning, bringing head trainer Lee Kuntz out of the dugout for a closer inspection. Strasburg convinced Kuntz and pitching coach Steve McCatty he could stay in the game, then three innings later he took a fastball off his right forearm while trying to bunt.
In some ways, the physical ailments might actually have forced Strasburg to be a better pitcher on this particular evening.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel good at all,” he said afterward. “I didn’t have good command in the bullpen, and I think when that happened in the past, I would just try and jam it down their throat and throw it as hard as I can. I kinda learned that that didn’t really get much accomplished. So I think it just helped me take a step back and really focus on being nice and easy and hitting my spots.”
Strasburg wound up carving the Phillies lineup with ease. He struck out 10, walked only one and needed only 90 pitches to complete his first eight innings, a mark of efficiency he has rarely exhibited in his career.
By the time he took the mound for the top of the ninth, with the Nationals comfortably ahead 6-0, Strasburg was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of 32,355. And after he retired the side on only nine pitches, the crowd roared even louder, teammates gave him hugs and high-fives … and the standard Gatorade shower.
Eleven days later in Chicago, Strasburg nearly went the distance again, only to surrender a game-tying homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. But that represented the fifth time he pitched at least eight innings in 2013, a significant accomplishment for a guy who will be expected to make many more of those kind of starts in 2014 and beyond.
“You play long enough, you see these guys who are top-end pitchers who are some of the best in the game, and that’s what they do,” Jayson Werth said. “They pitch deep into games: seven, eight, nine innings. They control the game. I think as Stras gets older, he’ll learn to do that a little bit more.”
If he does, Strasburg surely will look back at Aug. 11 as the night he finally proved he could finish what he started.
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