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Significant moment No. 10: Strasburg’s 1st shutout

Dec 22, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

Associated Press AP

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.

  1. MicheleS - Dec 22, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    I was at this game, and when Zim made the last out and Stras tipped his cap to him, that showed me a lot. Stephen is maturing into a great pitcher (STAY HEALTHY). I think this is the year he truly blossoms.

    Also LOVED the 5 pm start

    • ArVAFan - Dec 22, 2013 at 10:33 AM

      I just watched the replay of that game earlier this week. Stras actually smiled at the end. Next on his list–a no-hitter?

  2. sjm308 - Dec 22, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    Not that the No-Hitter is an indication of greatness, but he is the one pitcher on our staff that I think can actually think about something like that most of the time he starts. I usually stay till the end of most games but no matter how bad the score is, I will never leave a game until both teams have a hit. Does this franchise have a no-hit game here in DC? Heck, do they have one in Montreal? Just asking.

    Go Nats!!

  3. sjm308 - Dec 22, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    One other thought. With SS a year stronger, older, wiser. With the addition of Fister. We now have the ability for at least 4 of our starters to go deep into games. I guess last year that was also what Haren was supposed to bring but we really should be taxing our bullpen less this season which could help us later in the season. I am not suggesting that Williams ride our big four to the point that they are exhausted in Sept. but we really should be seeing fewer and fewer relievers coming in for the 4th 5th or 6th inning. At least that is my hope.

  4. NatsLady - Dec 22, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    I was at that game. Great memory!

  5. Eugene in Oregon - Dec 22, 2013 at 5:27 PM

    Don’t get me wrong here. I grew up watching Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Larry Dierker and other pitchers who valued a complete game. And I appreciate one as a sign of a mature, well-developed pitcher. And I recognize the immediate value — sometimes — to bullpens that have been overused.

    But the way pitchers are used in today’s game, I sometimes question the overall, longer-term value of a complete game. Is anyone aware of any studies to show whether, for example, pitchers come back from CGs better, worse, or on average with their season or career average? For example, I recall that the game after Stephen Strasburg’s CG was a pretty bleak one for him (the three wild pitches, followed by an HBP and ejection). And, anecdotely, I can recall that other modern pitchers (Nats and with other teams) sometimes seem to follow a complete game with a poor game (or two). Has anyone taken a systematic look at whether CGs are good for the pitcher (and the team) in the short- and medium-term? Just wondering.

    • ArVAFan - Dec 22, 2013 at 7:19 PM

      I would eliminate the “three wild pitches and HBP” game from any analysis of SS. That was the first time he had been called upon to do a deliberate HBP, and I think that just stressed him out too much (although he did hit Upton exactly where he intended to). This year, I think Doug Fister should handle any necessary HBP.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Dec 22, 2013 at 8:16 PM

        Fair enough. Not a good example. But I guess — more broadly — I was thinking of examples such as:

        – Gio Gonzalez goes 8 innings on April 25; next start he only goes 4 innings, giving up 5 earned runs; or
        – Gio Gonzalez goes 9 innings on Sept. 9; next start he gives up 4 earned runs in 6 innings.

        Of course Jordan Zimmermann did better in starts following 8 or 9 inning appearances. He had four 8-inning starts, following which he went 7 innings each time (and happened to pick the W each time, as well). And he had three complete games, after which we went 5, 8, and 7 innings..

        But those are just a few almost random examples. I don’t have an answer, just the question: Has anyone (meaning a card-carrying SABRmetrician) looked at this — i.e., how significant are CGs — analytically?

    • David Proctor - Dec 22, 2013 at 8:09 PM

      Following Gio’s one hitter this year , he went 6 innings and gave up 4ER. However, last year, Gio threw 2 CGs. One was a CG against the Cardinals. He followed that with 7 innings of 3 hit shutout ball, striking out 9 and walking 0. He also had a CG against the Astros. He followed that up with 6.2 innings of 2 run ball against the Giants.

      JZ had 3 CG’s this year. His first was against the Marlins. He followed that up with 5 innings of 2 run ball against the Mets. The start following that, JZimm pitched a 1 hit shutout against the Reds. He followed that up with 8 innings of shutout ball against the Braves. He pitched a shutout against the Marlins in September and followed that up with 6 innings of 4 run ball against the Cardinals.

      I don’t really see much correlation.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Dec 22, 2013 at 8:18 PM

        I think I was writing while you were posting. As I said, I’m just putting the question(s) out there — how significant (or telling or important) are CGs?

      • David Proctor - Dec 22, 2013 at 8:23 PM

        I don’t think they’re particularly telling, but I’d rather have Strasburg, Gio or JZimm out there in the 8th and 9th than anyone else in our bullpen.

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