Jun 28, 2015, 8:47 PM EDT
PHILADELPHIA — A lot happened over the course of seven hours Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, where the Nationals and Phillies engaged in 18 innings of baseball, some of it good and some of it bad and some of it painful.
A doubleheader split — a 3-2 victory in the opener, then an 8-5 loss in the finale — might have left the Nationals feeling like the entire day was a lost cause. Nothing gained, nothing lost.
That may be true in the standings, but the standings felt inconsequential on this day to what proved to be the most important development of the entire afternoon/evening: Another really impressive start by Stephen Strasburg.
With seven innings of 2-run ball, Strasburg validated his 5-inning return from the disabled list last week and gave further evidence to suggest his early season struggles are long behind him, with plenty more positive outings still to come.
“It’s huge,” said first baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson, who drove in two runs in the nightcap. “He struggled a little bit to begin the year, but now that he looks like he’s back on track, he’s just another piece to our great rotation. We need him a lot. He’s really important to us. So to get him back on track and out there throwing up zeroes like everyone else is really important.”
Dominant starting pitching was the common denominator throughout the Nationals’ 8-game winning streak, which finally came to end Sunday evening after Tanner Roark was rocked for eight runs in a spot start necessitated by Saturday’s rainout after only 1 1/2 innings. It’s how this team was built to win. And Strasburg is a key piece to that puzzle.
What he has shown in two starts since a brief DL stint to deal with a strained trapezius muscle and out-of-whack mechanics — two runs, eight hits, two walks and 15 strikeouts over 12 innings — suggests he is back to his old self again.
“It’s nice that he’s healthy,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s nice that he feels good about going out there. He’s had no issues, which is great. When he doesn’t, that can be the result.”
Strasburg’s start was important not only for the results he posted but for the quality innings he pitched. In the opener of a doubleheader with an uncertain Game 2 starter, the Nationals needed something like this from Strasburg, and he delivered.
Picking up right where he left off Tuesday against the Braves, Strasburg was in complete control throughout, relying on his fastball to set up hitters. He did turn to his offspeed stuff more to put guys away, leading to a season-high nine strikeouts, thanks to the best change-up he has featured in quite some time.
“Change-up is starting to come back to me,” he said. “I’m starting to execute it a lot better and more consistently.”
Perhaps the most important thing Strasburg did on Sunday, though, was take the mound for the bottom of the seventh and emerge from that inning having preserved the Nationals’ 3-2 lead … not to mention their bullpen.
With his pitch count at 96 and having labored somewhat in the sixth, Strasburg might normally have been pulled. But with another game still to be played, with a fill-in starter out of the bullpen, Williams decided to try to squeeze one more inning out of his right-hander.
“It’s important for him to stretch it,” the manager said. “We knew that going in. So, yeah, I thought it was important for our whole team for him to get deep in the game for us, and he provided that.”
Strasburg finished with some of his best work of the day, retiring the side on a flyball and two more strikeouts, capping a 113-pitch performance that was sorely needed.
“This whole season my arm strength has always been there,” Strasburg said. “It’s been kind of fighting through the mechanical issues and everything like that. So I was glad to go out there for seven, and I felt just as strong in the seventh as I was in the first.”
The Nationals would have loved to get a comparable start out of Roark in the nightcap, but the right-hander didn’t have one in him. Pressed back into the rotation for one spot start, he was roughed up for eight runs on 12 hits (11 of them singles) in only 3 1/3 innings.
Not that the Phillies were blasting the ball all over the park against Roark. Three of the hits never left the infield, and another two were perfectly placed groundballs that sneaked their way through.
“That’s the game of baseball,” Roark said. “You can’t win them all. You can’t pitch lights-out every single time. You just go out there, go about your business, do your job and sometimes it goes that way.”
Given how well their rotation has performed over the last week-plus, the Nationals couldn’t be too upset with one clunker of a start at the end of a long weekend.
“They had some balls that snuck through,” Williams said. “They did a nice job of staying on baseballs and making contact and hitting it through the middle of the diamond. But a lot of grounders today that got through the infield, a couple balls off the end of the bat. Yeah, not his day.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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