May 8, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
When Stephen Strasburg struck out Miguel Olivo and Justin Turner in succession to end the top of the seventh inning yesterday afternoon, the crowd of 34,756 at Nationals Park rose and saluted the right-hander as he retreated to the dugout.
Everyone in attendance had every reason to believe Strasburg’s afternoon was complete. He had thrown 106 pitches. He had battled back after a ragged first inning to retire 19-of-22 batters faced. And the Nationals held a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers, with a fresh bullpen ready to close this one out.
Inside the home dugout, though, Matt Williams had other ideas. He didn’t have Tyler Clippard warming in the bullpen. He didn’t go over to shake Strasburg’s hand. Instead, he let the 25-year-old take the mound once again for the top of the eighth.
As the rookie manager explained afterward: “He’s our horse.”
This is new territory for Strasburg, who throughout his professional career has been protected by managers, rarely allowed to push himself late in games. Only four previous times in the big leagues had he been given the ball to start a new inning with his pitch count over 100. Only once had he taken the mound having thrown more than 105 pitches.
The right-hander certainly didn’t disagree with his manager’s decision yesterday. He wholeheartedly embraced the idea.
“That’s the position I want to be in,” Strasburg said. “That’s going to make me a better pitcher in the long run. Every time out, I want to go as deep as I can and keep it close.”
Strasburg wasn’t able to finish the eighth inning this time. He allowed a bunt single to Dee Gordon to open the inning, then got Carl Crawford to line out, then walked Hanley Ramirez before finally departing with his pitch count at 114. Jerry Blevins and Clippard took over from there and stranded the tying runner in scoring position, ultimately preserving Strasburg’s third win of the season.
In this case, though, the mere fact Strasburg was given the opportunity to pitch one more inning seemed more significant than the eventual outcome.
“I want to show confidence, and we as an organization want to show confidence in him,” Williams said. “If we get to that point, you got a 3-2 lead, it’s in the seventh inning, you got  pitches, we’re not afraid to throw you back out there and let you go. We also want to be mindful of that, too. It’s just a confidence-booster to him, that he’s able to go back out for it.
“He didn’t go 1-2-3 in the eighth today, but then again, he didn’t have to today. We want to give him the opportunity to do that, though. We want to get him to that point where he can finish that eighth inning, too. That’s important for him.”
Catcher Wilson Ramos agreed.
“I like that, because the pitcher gets more confidence, and that’s what we need,” Ramos said. “We need those guys out there with confidence. When you go out there and you feel confident in yourself, you play better. When the manager gives confidence to us, we play better.”
Prior to yesterday, Strasburg had topped the 110-pitch mark only 13 times in his career. Twelve of those starts came last season, as Davey Johnson began the process of pushing the young right-hander to new limits.
Based on what we saw yesterday, Williams plans to push Strasburg even further this season.
“He’s a guy that can go 120,” the manager said. “We don’t want to do that every time. But in a game like today, he’s got the lead and we want to show confidence in him that we’re willing to send him back out there to protect that lead. …
“He wants to pitch. He wants the ball in his hand. And so do we. He’s a really good pitcher.”
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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