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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 fall on wrong side of three challenges by Orioles manager Showalter

Nats fall on wrong side of three challenges by Orioles manager Showalter

Manager Dusty Baker is new to MLB's system of replay challenges as the first-year skipper of the Washington Nationals. There have been times this season where the rules have helped Baker and his team. Tuesday night was not one of those times.

Buck Showalter of the Orioles matched an MLB season-high with three successful manager challenges in the Nats' 8-1 loss at Camden Yards. Two of them pulled Trea Turner off the basepaths. One of them ruled Adam Jones safe to extend an inning.

The two Turner ones hurt the most, as they contributed to a long night for the Nationals offense, one in which they landed 10 hits but scored just one run. Turner was ruled out on two steal attempts at second base. One was in the first inning after he led off the game with a single. The other was in the third inning, again after he got on with a single.

Both plays featured throws by Orioles catcher Matt Wieters that were to the right of the bag, but second baseman Jonathan Schoop was able to pull the ball in and make the tag with Turner sliding past him.

"You can’t do anything if the throws are towards first base," Baker said. "They weren’t very good throws. It just happens they were very good tags. You got a 6-foot-4, long-armed second baseman, and most people don’t even get down in that position to make that tag."

Turner agreed on the throws and wished, in a sense, they were more on target.

"I just wish he would have made good throws right over the bag, I think I have a better chance that way," he said. "Throw gets taken up the line, you know he can put the tag on you a little bit faster and that's what happened tonight."

Getting Turner, one of the fastest players in baseball, into scoring position generally leads to good things. The Nats instead had him sent back to the dugout after lengthy delays while the umpires conferred with New York.

Both Baker and Turner stewed over the replay system itself as they waited. And afterwards each made their opinions clear.

"Don't care for it too much. I don't think I or we or anybody on this side has really benefit from it, so for that reason I don't really care for it," Turner said.

Baker was much more direct and descriptive.

"Number one, I just think it takes too long… they've gotta do something to correct the length of time. Maybe after 30 seconds if they're inconclusive, then come up with whatever the umpire said," Baker said.

"It sort of makes a point of why do we need umpires, if you're going to dispute everything that they say? I don't know. I'm kind of new this year to replay, but it's tough to lose three of them… To me, it doesn't make the umpires look very good. I just hope they correct this."

[RELATED: Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles]

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Reynaldo Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles

Reynaldo Lopez rocked as Nats suffer lopsided loss to Orioles

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night at Camden Yards.

How it happened: Reynaldo Lopez learned the hard way on Tuesday night that pitching in Baltimore these days is a much different story than pitching in Atlanta.

After two impressive outings against the lowly Braves, Lopez had quite the wakeup call against the Orioles at Camden Yards, a haunted house for pitchers. The Nats rookie had no chance against the O's and was bounced after just 2 2/3 innings of work. That nice little favor A.J. Cole did their bullpen the night before became a distant memory, as Matt Belisle was summoned far earlier than manager Dusty Baker had intended.

Lopez ended up with six runs allowed - four of them earned - on seven hits and three walks. None of his runs came on homers, despite the Orioles' penchant for hitting them.

Lopez was thoroughly outpitched by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman, who - like Dylan Bundy the night before - showed why Baltimore took him with the fourth overall pick. Gausman was sharp with his mid-90s fastball and mixed in sliders and splitters with regularity. He tossed six shutout innings with six hits and two walks allowed on 110 total pitches.

After Lopez left, Oliver Perez gave up an RBI single to Matt Wieters in the seventh. Yusmeiro Petit then offered up a solo homer to Chris Davis in the eighth. 

The Nats had trouble scoring, but they did get on base at a decent rate. Trea Turner had a career-high four hits, including a double. Bryce Harper had two singles. Ryan Zimmerman singled and scored their only run on a Danny Espinosa RBI knock. 

The Nationals lost for the second straight night to the Orioles, who have absolutely owned them in their annual head-to-head series in recent years.

What it means: The Nats dropped to 73-52 on the season and have lost five straight games to the Orioles going back to last season. Since the start of 2012, they are 6-16 against the O's.

Lopez gets rocked: What happened to Lopez on Tuesday night was much more like his first two big league outings, when he got shelled by the Dodgers and Giants. At least in those games he made it at least four innings. Lopez found trouble early against the Orioles, who wasted no time in overwhelming the young right-hander. Mark Trumbo singled home a run in the first inning. Wieters doubled home another in the second. Adam Jones brought in a third run on an infield single soon after.

That was bad, but the third inning saw matters get much worse. Jonathan Schoop doubled home Davis to make it 4-0 with one out. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, Lopez got J.J. Hardy to hit a hard grounder to Daniel Murphy at second. Murphy booted it and allowed two unearned runs to score. That made it 6-0 and got Belisle into the game.

Despite throwing two consecutive solid games against the Braves, Lopez now has a 5.33 ERA through five total starts with 15 earned runs allowed in 23 1/3 big league innings. 

Turner gets four hits: Turner singled three times and doubled once in the Nats' loss. It was his first four-hit game, but the second time he's reached base four times. He also did that on June 3 in Cincinnati in his first MLB game of 2016.

Turner's night was notable because of the hits, but also because he was caught stealing twice. Both times were on nice throws by Wieters, but even better tags by Schoop. And both times were on Buck Showalter challenges. Turner has been caught stealing three times this year and all were on umpire reviews. Showalter, in fact, won three challenges on the night, which matched an MLB season-high.

Espinosa contributes again: It was just an RBI single on an otherwise forgettable night for the Nats, but for Espinosa it was his second straight game doing something positive at the plate after he homered on Monday night. Espinosa is still just 7-for-47 (.149) in his last 13 games.

Up next: The Nats and Orioles shift to Washington where they play two games at Nationals Park. Wednesday night will pit Tanner Roark (13-6, 2.87) up against O's lefty Wade Miley (7-10, 5.58).

[RELATED: Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen]

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Joe Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen

Joe Ross takes big step in rehab, is okay with returning to Nats in bullpen

It turns out Joe Ross may be closer to returning than originally thought, or at least closer than it seemed on Monday. On Tuesday, Ross took a big step in his recovery from right shoulder inflammation by throwing a bullpen session in Baltimore at Camden Yards.

That was a step Ross waited weeks to take and, though it was only about 30 pitches, the right-hander felt great coming out of it and now has a potential return in much clearer focus.

"The head trainer, Paul Lessard, he came in and gave me the thumbs up," manager Dusty Baker said. "I know Joe has been champing at the bit and it was very successful. He said he didn't feel anything. Hopefully we can put him back to work here pretty soon."

"It feels really good, that's why I'm pretty excited," Ross said. "I finally got to throw off the mound and it's feeling good. Hopefully it feels good from here."

Ross hopes to throw another bullpen session this week and then increase his workload up from there. As for when he will return, that has not been determined.

"I don't know exactly how long, but I want to get back on the mound as soon as possible. I'm feeling better. That's what I'm working towards," he said.

Ross, though, could return sooner than under usual circumstances, as the Nats may be inclined to skip a minor league rehab assignment and instead have him rejoin them as a reliever. He could build his innings that way and eventually return to the rotation some time in September.

"It makes sense," Ross said. "I know the season's coming to an end for the minor league side. So if that what we've got to do, that's what we've got to do. I mean, I'd just be happy being out there pitching. I'll take whatever role I can get for now. But obviously want to try to get back to starting in September, mid-September. That's the goal."

Baker thinks having Ross pitch out of the bullpen could also come in handy later on.

"We're in the middle of a pennant race. I haven't talked to Mike [Rizzo] about it or anything, I just talked to Joe about it. I just didn't want him surprised that that was the case. We want him if possible, if he's ready, on the playoff roster. That's always a possibility for a fourth or fifth starter to be in the bullpen, anyways. So, we'll see. We'll see how his progress comes," he said.

Ross hasn't pitched in the majors since July 2. He hasn't pitched in a game since July 30, when he appeared with the Triple-A Syracuse.

[RELATED: Nats place Strasburg on DL with elbow injury]

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