Aug 3, 2014, 6:34 PM EST
Before the Phillies bullpen allowed the Nationals to secure a comfortable lead in the eighth inning on Sunday, much of the afternoon was the Stephen Strasburg vs. Cole Hamels show. Both starters were locked in, neither giving an inch to their opponent.
Hamels was the one to blink with a run allowed in the third, though it went unearned thanks to an error by Cody Asche. Strasburg wasn’t quite as generous.
The right-hander went seven scoreless, allowing just three hits and a walk to go along with 10 strikeouts. He retired the first seven batters he faced and put on a clinic of razor-sharp fastballs, twisting curveballs and diving changeups.
“He was good, really good,” manager Matt Williams said. “Lots of curveballs today, really good curveballs early in the count to get strike one. And good fastball command, as well. Probably the best fastball command I’ve seen him have all year today. And the ability to throw a breaking ball at any time sure keeps hitters off-balance. So he pitched really well.”
Strasburg used his curveball on 21 percent of his 99 pitches Sunday, a few ticks up from his 17 percent usage rate this season. Later in his start, however, it was a huge emphasis.
Strasburg threw 16 curveballs in his final three innings including seven of his 13 total pitches in the sixth against Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. The Utley at-bat was capped off by a winding hook for the swinging strikeout.
“I felt like I had a pretty good feel for [the curveball] in the pen and just really felt like I could command it to both sides of the plate today,” Strasburg said.
“He’s getting better and better,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “His curveball is one of the best. He’s using both sides, he’s using backdoor and he’s using in.”
Strasburg said he made some tweaks prior to Sunday’s 4-0 win with pitching coach Steve McCatty, but that he couldn’t share many details about their conversation.
“That’s between me and him, there’s gotta be a line,” he said when asked for further explanation.
Center fielder Denard Span, however, described one difference he has noticed from his vantage point playing behind Strasburg.
“All day long he had the hitters guessing,” Span said. “For me the biggest thing is – I don’t know if I want to say this – is him pitching inside. He doesn’t pitch inside too often. Today he was hitting his spots inside. He just kept those guys guessing.
“Normally he’s just throwing his fastball middle-away, middle-away and guys are able to kind of cheat to his fastball. You can ask any pitching coach or any player that plays this game, when the pitcher is pitching inside effectively, it just makes it tougher as a hitter.”
Strasburg took the win and is now 8-9 with a 3.39 ERA in 24 starts and 151 1/3 innings this season. Given the way this year has gone, it was no surprise to see him dominate once again at home.
Strasburg is now 7-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 13 starts at Nationals Park. At home he has 112 strikeouts in 86 innings, a 1.058 WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.0.
On the road it has been a completely different story. Away from Nats Park, Strasburg is 1-7 with a 4.68 ERA, a 1.408 WHIP and a 3.42 K/BB rate. By some numbers, he’s been nearly twice as good at home as he has been away from it.
Williams is not sure exactly why those numbers are so different.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for it,” he said. “Certainly comfort level here. He knows the mound. Every time out, he knows the bullpen, he knows his routine. But there’s no reason why, I just think that’s the way it’s happened.”
Williams noted the entire Nats’ rotation has pitched well of late, but confirmed Strasburg is still his ace.
“Yeah. Stephen was the guy we went to the first day of the season, he’s the guy we went to after the break, and he’s proven why he’s a real good pitcher. The last two outings have been really, really good,” Williams said.
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