- A healthy, dominant Stephen Strasburg could be the cure for the Nationals' first-round woes in the postseason. He and Max Scherzer look like they'll make up the scariest one-two punch of any playoff team.
Stephen Strasburg’s career is a mélange of glimmers of brilliance, hard-luck injuries and unrealized greatness. Still just 29 years old, he is the second pitcher in a rotation anchored by Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer despite entering the big leagues as the most touted rookie starting pitcher in decades. His 2010 debut, when he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates only 364 days after being drafted first overall, remains one of baseball’s superlative first appearances. Seven years later, Nationals fans still haven’t seen a generational pitcher, but an injury-plagued hurler who can be one of the game’s best if he’s healthy enough to make his biggest starts.
On Sunday, Strasburg extended his scoreless streak to franchise-record 34 innings in the Nationals’ 3–2 win over the Phillies. Washington became the first team to clinch a playoff berth, and looks like the most feared team in the National League now that the Dodgers have lost 15 of their last 16 games. The prospect of home-field advantage was all but a joke one month ago, but the Nationals trail the Dodgers by a mere four games for the National League’s best record. Perhaps Strasburg isn’t the prodigy many projected he would be, but he will be the most feared second starter of any playoff team if he maintains his current form. Strasburg has made just one playoff start even though the Nationals have made it to the postseason three times since his career began. The team hasn’t won a playoff series since becoming the Nationals in 2005; the franchise hasn’t reached the NLCS since the Expos played the Dodgers in 1981.
Strasburg’s emergence since his return from the disabled list is a significant reason for the Nationals’ success. He entered Sunday’s start having thrown 26 consecutive scoreless innings, an ERA of 0.67 and a batting average against of .198 since his being activated off the DL. He responded Sunday with his best outing of the season, allowing two hits over eight shutout innings against the hapless Phillies. Strasburg now owns a 2.64 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 10.5 K/9. He’s allowed just one home run since returning from the disabled list (a solo shot), is striking out almost 30% of his batters and has walked only four batters during his scoreless streak.
What might be most impressive is that Strasburg isn’t trying anything unusual against opposing hitters, he’s just overpowering them. He’s rotating between three pitches (four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball), maintaining his fastball between 95-96 MPH and whiffing hitters on a comical percentage of his changeups. Right now, the best approach against Strasburg is to find a fastball to drive early in the count. If he blows one past you, you’ll be stuck trying to foul off a curveball before likely striking out on his changeup. He’s rarely using the slider he’s experimented with over the past two seasons (and one he blamed for a disabled list stint last year) and is instead relying on a traditional threesome of pitches to work hitters. It’s been effective, and when he’s simplest, he’s scariest.
The usual criticism of Strasburg is mostly unfair, but it’s hard to blame Nationals fans if they’re treating this surge with caution. Strasburg has never finished a season with an ERA above 3.60 and doesn’t struggle with walks or home runs allowed, but he’ll finish another season—his fourth in a row—without making 30 starts. Washington’s dominance has allowed the team to treat Strasburg more delicately than it would if it were in the thick of a playoff race, but his DL trips are an annual tradition that frustrate everyone.
If he is right, though, or anywhere near as good as he has showcased since arriving from his most recent injury, then the Nationals will have the most feared rotation of any team come playoff time.