HOUSTON — This is the inside story of how the Washington Nationals saved their season from ending for a fourth time. It begins not with Anthony Rendon or Juan Soto, but Jonathan Tosches. He is the Nationals’ 37-year-old coordinator of advance scouting with a masters degree in sport management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was a dead-eye three-point shooter in intramural hoops. He supervises the Nationals’ video review replay system during games.
The Nationals’ fourth season-saving win began with these four words from Tosches to pitching coach Paul Menhart:
“He’s doing it again.”
“He” was Stephen Strasburg. “It” was tipping his pitches.
The Nationals had handed Strasburg a 1-0 lead with a run in the top of the first, but Strasburg lost it in the bottom of the inning with just 12 pitches: double, wild pitch, sacrifice fly, strikeout, home run.
The Astros were on almost everything Strasburg was throwing, and Tosches, from his view of the television monitor, knew why.
He remembered the game Strasburg pitched in Arizona on August 3. The Diamondbacks pounded Strasburg for nine runs in less than five innings. The D-Backs knew what was coming. The Nationals broke down the tape and discovered Strasburg was tipping his pitches by the way he reached into his glove to grip the baseball near his waist, just before he raised his hands to the set position.
Years ago, Strasburg stopped pitching from the windup. He went to the stretch for all of his pitches to simplify his mechanics and make them more repeatable. But by doing so he allows the hitter a good look at how he reaches into the glove for his pitch grip.
Now here was Strasburg telegraphing his pitches again, only this time it wasn’t an August game in Phoenix but a World Series elimination game.
Strasburg went back out for the second inning. On alert from Tosches, Menhart watched him carefully.
“I saw it plain as day,” Menhart said. “I knew every pitch he was throwing. He got through the inning clean, but it was obvious.”
Menhart actually debated briefly with himself whether to alert Strasburg.
“He’s not the most approachable guy when he’s pitching,” Menhart said. “He doesn’t like you to say much to him about tipping or anything else. The only thing he might do is ask about how we’re going to attack a certain guy.
“But, dang! This is Game 6 of the World Series! So I said, ‘Bump it. Let’s do this.’”
Menhart is one of those baseball lifers who has influenced so many pitchers over the years without many people noticing. Good instructors are baseball’s version of the best elementary school teachers. They don’t get much credit, but darn if you are not shaped by their influence throughout your life.
Menhart once talked a young and doubt-stricken Brad Peacock out of a miserable slump by walking with him along the warning track in the low minor leagues and telling him, “Don’t worry. Some day you’re going to pitch in the big leagues.” Peacock now is a valuable pitcher on the Houston staff.
“I remember,” Menhart said, “but I must have had that same conversation with a hundred guys.”
Menhart pitched briefly in the majors (41 games) and without much success (5.47 ERA). His last four years in pro ball were spent entirely in the minors. He went home to Conyers, Georgia, where he took a job delivering windows. The work was unfulfilling, so he went back to Western Carolina to get his degree and begin coaching. The Nationals hired him in 2006 to troubleshoot all around the minors.
For the past five years he was the club’s minor league pitching coordinator, until one day in May when GM Mike Rizzo fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and tapped Menhart for the big-league job. Nationals pitchers, many of whom worked with him in the minors, immediately responded to his honesty, humor and easygoing nature.
But in the second inning of Game 6, Menhart knew he had to say something to his gruff starting pitcher.
He approached Strasburg and used almost the same words Tosches used:
“Stephen, you’re doing it again.”
Menhart didn’t have to show video to Strasburg. The pitcher knew instantly what he was doing to telegraph his pitches. The pitching coach and his pitcher came up with a fix. Strasburg would reach into his glove for his grip, then briefly start flapping his glove at the waist before raising his hands at the set position.
The game flipped right there.
“He told me it was—what is the right word here—just so re-assuring to him,” Menhart said. “It gave him such relief and confidence. He said, ‘I got takes on balls they were hitting before, and they were swinging and missing at balls they were spitting on in the first inning.’ It freed him up.”
Strasburg gave up two runs in the first inning and none thereafter. The Astros went 3-for-22 after Strasburg stopped tipping his pitches. They didn’t know what hit them.
Strasburg became the first pitcher in more than a quarter of a century—since Curt Schilling in 1993—to take the ball into the ninth inning to win a World Series elimination game.
Asked the difference in turning his night around, Strasburg said, “I stopped tipping my pitches, thanks to Paul Menhart letting me know. I’ve had a history with it. He alerted me.”
Said Menhart, “It gave him so much more confidence that now he was pitching in a fair game. You don’t want games to be decided with any extra or outside interference.
“I’m a purist. Old school. All I want is for the game to be fair. I don’t want teams picking up pitches illegally or electronically.”
Asked if he thought the Astros may have been assisted by technology—the use of electronics to steal pitches is illegal—Menhart said, “I’ve heard things may happen like that, but tonight I saw it [Strasburg’s tipping] with my own eyes. If you see something like that because you’re a smart hitter, that’s fine. That’s baseball.
“But that’s why we give multiple signs here with nobody on base. We know these things go on. And right now, we’re the only game on TV.”
Strasburg introduced himself to baseball with a 14-strikeout game in 2010 that drew comparisons to Walter Johnson. He gained infamy in 2012 when he watched the Nationals blow the Division Series to St. Louis as the only known “healthy scratch” in playoff baseball. Washington shut him down because it determined he had thrown enough innings that year.
Since then, Strasburg has become a superlative finished product of a pitcher. He ditched his slider because it hurt his elbow and backed off trying to blow fastballs by hitters. He beats people now with a ferocious two-seam fastball/changeup combination and a wipeout curveball. He has traded power for artistry.
Among the 10 best put-away pitches in baseball this year, Strasburg is the only pitcher with two of them, and neither is his fastball: his changeup (seventh at a .100 batting average with two strikes) and curveball (eighth at .105).
The first time Menhart saw Strasburg was in the Arizona Fall League in his first pro season. One look at Strasburg and Menhart saw a different pitcher than the one advertised.
“I know everybody likes this kid’s fastball and curveball,” Menhart reported back to his bosses, “but for my money I think his best pitch might be his changeup.”
Strasburg had rarely thrown his changeup in college. It was unnecessary because college hitters couldn’t touch his fastball and curve.
“I think I threw it once or twice a game,” Strasburg said. “And that was only a show pitch once in a while.”
When he reached the big leagues, his first catcher, Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, told him, “That pitch is so good you need to throw it more.”
In the regular season this year batters hit .140 off his changeup. In the postseason, until the World Series, they hit .080—two hits in 25 at-bats.
But then something happened in World Series Game 2. The Astros ambushed his changeup. Alex Bregman hit a two-run homer. Michael Brantley singled on a line drive. Yordan Alvarez singled on a hard ground ball. All off Strasburg changeups.
Houston had three hits off his changeup in one game—tying a game-high against Strasburg all year—which was one more than his three previous postseason starts put together.
In Game 6, George Springer hammered a fastball for a double, Jose Altuve scored him by hitting a curveball for sacrifice fly, and Bregman homered off a fastball.
And then just like that, Houston stopped hitting Strasburg.
“He was gassed by the fifth inning,” Menhart said. “Every inning after that he was down to his last thread. He kept pitching. The guy is a fighter and a class act.”
When Strasburg came back in the dugout after the eighth inning, Menhart asked him how he felt one more time.
“I’ll give you all I’ve got,” Strasburg told him.
“Go get [Yuli] Gurriel out,” Menhart said, referring to the Houston leadoff hitter in the ninth, “and we’ll call it a night.”
“Great,” Strasburg said. “I’ve got him.”
Strasburg did get Gurriel on a hard liner on a 94-mph fastball, the last of his 104 pitches on the night and 3,943 on the year—more than any pitcher except Verlander.
There was a night two years ago in the World Series, in Game 7, when the Astros knew when Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish was throwing his slider. Like Strasburg, Darvish pitches out of the stretch all the time. They could tell by how he put the ball into his glove upon taking the sign from the catcher when he was throwing the slider, his best pitch, and when he wasn’t. They knocked him from the game in the second inning and won the World Series with a 5-1 win.
In another Game 6, in 2001, the Diamondbacks were facing elimination when they had every pitch from Yankees starter Andy Pettitte out of the stretch. As he came set, he would loop his hands away from his waist for a breaking ball and bring them straight down for a fastball. They knocked Pettitte from the game in the third inning and routed the Yankees, 15-2. They won the next night to win the World Series.
World Series have been won and lost by pitchers tipping their pitches. The Dodgers and Yankees didn’t figure out their own pitcher was giving away pitches, and they paid the price for it.
Who knows how Game 6 Tuesday night might have played out if Strasburg had not made his fix? Who knows if we even have a Game 7 Wednesday night if not for a 37-year-old advance scouting coordinator and a first-year major league pitching coach? But it really did happen, and now we have the best day in all of sports. It is Game 7, with Max Scherzer, infirm just three days ago, rising from his sick bed to take on Zack Greinke in a Cy vs. Cy classic that rivals Schilling against Roger Clemens in 2001 World Series Game 7.
The world—and both teams toward one another—will be watching very, very closely.