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The Nats' stopper does it again

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The Nats' stopper does it again

He's all of 23 years old, with only 31 big-league starts to his name. The Nationals don't care. They've anointed Stephen Strasburg their ace, and there's no one they'd rather have on the mound when they really need to win a ballgame.

"He's a true No. 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."

A scary thought, indeed, because even at this relatively novice stage of his career, Strasburg is already establishing himself as one of the true stoppers in the sport.

Take Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over the Rays. The Nationals entered this one on a four-game losing streak, perhaps starting to question their ability to beat the elite competition they're currently facing from the AL East.

There may be no better pitcher in such a situation, though, than Strasburg. Four times this season he's started with the Nationals mired in a losing streak of at least three games. And all four times he's earned a win.

"With him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Stras is unbelievable on the bump. He's a specimen out there."

And more and more, he's resembling the man who currently holds the title of "Baseball's Best Pitcher." Yes, Strasburg is beginning to compare favorably to Justin Verlander.

Begin with the pure numbers. Through 14 starts this season, Strasburg is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the majors with 110 strikeouts in only 84 innings. Verlander's stats through the first 14 starts of his MVP 2011 campaign with the Tigers: 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 102 23 innings.

Lest anyone get carried away, this isn't to suggest Strasburg's 2012 numbers are going to surpass Verlander's 2011 numbers by season's end. Verlander did, after all, go 17-2 with a 2.06 ERA over his final 20 starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, is expected to be shut down once he reaches 160 or so innings and won't be making any appearances during the late-September stretch drive.

Point is, Strasburg is dominating as thoroughly as any pitcher could given the strict limitations the Nationals have placed on him.

"He's very good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I had never seen it in person. ... He is very, very exciting."

Perhaps the most favorable comparison between Strasburg and Verlander is each pitcher's ability to get stronger the more he throws, peaking not on his first pitch but on his last.

Strasburg certainly put that trait on display Wednesday night during his dominant seventh inning. With his pitch count already in triple digits, he struck out the final two batters he faced: Will Rhymes on an 89 mph changeup, then Desmond Jennings on back-to-back 98 mph fastballs (the hardest pitches he'd thrown since the first inning).

"They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going," Strasburg said. "So I'd say maybe that's a little bit what happens. But I don't think I'm going out there with a mindset I'm just going to let everything go."

Each pitch Strasburg threw during his final innings carried plenty of added pressure, because with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, one mistake could have made all the difference in the world.

Not that he didn't get a little bit of help behind him, most notably from Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the potential tying run on second, the Nationals' rookie left fielder came charging in to make a diving catch of Jose Molina's sinking liner, quash the rally and bring the crowd of 27,485 to its feet.

Lombardozzi, a career second baseman who never played the outfield until this season, actually broke backward upon seeing Molina strike the ball but quickly recovered.

"At first I took a step back and I realized it was going to be short," he said. "So I just was hauling my butt in and I was able to make the catch."

Each defensive play late loomed large because a Nationals lineup that pounced on Rays right-hander Chris Archer in his big-league debut for three first-inning runs went silent the rest of the night. Lombardozzi's double, Harper's RBI single and Ian Desmond's RBI single proved to be their club's only hits of the game.

"I'm glad we did it in the first," Johnson said as he opened his postgame news conference.

The manager also was glad to be able to hand the ball to his ace, the 23-year-old who seems to get better as each start progresses, with a limitless future in front of him.

"He does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it," Johnson said. "And then as he gets into the game, where he has confidence in all of his pitches, he gets the feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it.

"That's basically his gameplan. Pretty good one."

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Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Ramos' injury

Nats call up catcher Spencer Kieboom after Ramos' injury

The day after Wilson Ramos suffered a right knee injury in their loss to the Diamondbacks, the Nationals called up catcher Spencer Kieboom from the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

Ramos, 29, was scheduled for an MRI on Tuesday morning. This would certainly point towards the All-Star backstop at least missing some time. The Nationals now have four catchers on their roster with Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino also in store.

Ramos hurt himself landing on his right leg after jumping for a ball thrown home in the top of the sixth on Monday. Ramos previously tore his ACL and MCL in the same knee back in 2012.

Kieboom, 25, was a fifth round pick out of Clemson in 2012. He holds a .264 average in 297 career minor league games. He hit .230 through 94 games at Harrisburg this season.

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

Team Record: 91-65

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The final week - Manager Dusty Baker and his Nationals have a delicate balance to maintain over the next week-plus as they get set to play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series on Oct. 7. They need to remain sharp while still giving some of their regulars rest before the grind that is October. It sounds simple, but it has been proven over and over to be much more complex than it sounds.

The most important objective through all of it, of course, is avoiding injuries and both Sunday and Monday's games illustrated how difficult that can be. Any time players are on the field, they are at risk of hurting themselves. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, Bryce Harper jammed his thumb sliding into third base on a triple against the Pirates. X-rays were negative, but it could have easily been serious. The Nats dodged a bullet.

One night later, catcher Wilson Ramos hurt his knee on a throw home. Ryan Zimmerman threw high over Ramos' head, requiring him to jump and catch it. He landed on his right leg and his knee buckled slightly. It wasn't even a contact play, yet now the catcher's immediate future hangs in the balance.

Both of these injuries come on the heels of Daniel Murphy injuring his left buttock and Stephen Strasburg suffering a strained right flexor mass. That's four of their five 2016 All-Stars, all injured to different degrees in a span of just three weeks.

No one wants to put their players in harm's way unnecessarily, but the alternative can also be bleak. It's an inexact science trying to keep players sharp down the stretch of the regular season ahead of the playoffs, especially with a four-day layoff awaiting them while the MLB wild card games are decided. That's basically an All-Star break, an unusually long respite right before the intensity of games goes up several notches.

The Nationals know this all too well, as in 2014 they had the four-day layoff and came out of it flat on offense. They won 17 of 22 down the stretch of the regular season, but then had four days off. They did their best with a simulated game at Nationals Park. Aaron Barrett famously sang the national anthem. It sounded like a fun time, but it couldn't prevent the Nats from hitting just .164 in their series against the Giants. Their bullpen stood out in that series loss, and so did some managerial decisions, but bottom line is that they scored nine runs in four games.

Their pitching was mostly good. They also held the Giants to just nine runs in the series. The Nats just couldn't score when they needed to.

Baker has plenty of experience heading into the playoffs both as a player and as a manager. He told a story on Monday about the 1977 season when he was an outfielder for the Dodgers that has stuck with him ever since:

"I know that when I was a player back in ’77 Steve Garvey and I were the only ones that played all the way to the end because I was trying to hit 30 home runs and he was trying to get 200 hits. Consequently, Reggie Smith and Ron Seay when we started the playoffs they weren’t sharp because they took three or four days off because they already had their 30 home runs. So Garv and I were the only two that were really hot and we got to the World Series and we weren’t that hot but the other guys that had gotten the rest were hot. It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough."

It may not affect how they play in the postseason whatsoever, but it would be a good idea for the Nats to hold an open workout this time. In 2014, they closed their workout to both fans and the media. They basically remained silent for four days heading into the postseason.

The Kansas City Royals, conversely, held a workout open to fans in October of 2014. They called it a playoff rally and around five thousand people showed up to Kauffman Stadium.

Now, that's just an idea that could bring some fun to the whole experience. It offers no solution to the conundrum of keeping players rested, yet sharp for the playoffs. Though, the Royals reaching the World Series that year at least proves it can't hurt.

Truthfully, there is probably no right answer in how to handle the Nationals over the next 10 days. Would you rather run the risk of injury, or risk losing rhythm and momentum entering the playoffs? It's not an easy call to make.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Ryan Zimmerman 9/23 vs. Pirates - 2-for-5, 2 2B, 2 R, RBI

Pitching line of the week: Reynaldo Lopez 9/24 vs. Pirates - 5.1 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 85 pitches (57 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

"That's what I came here for. I'm telling you -- let these young men have a great time tonight, back to work tomorrow. First step in a four-step process. This step is the hardest to get. I'm just so happy for these guys. I love them. I love this team."

- Dusty Baker on the Nats clinching the 2016 NL East

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

Road Ahead

Mon. - 14-4 loss to Arizona
Tue. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Scherzer vs. Godley)
Wed. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Gonzalez vs. Miller)
Thu. - 1:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Ross vs. Ray)
Fri. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Cole vs. Chen)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Roark vs. Phelps)
Sun. - 3:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Scherzer vs. Urena)

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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