Ron Cook: Strasburg impresses vs. Pirates even when he's off

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Most days, there are baseball games at PNC Park. Occasionally, there is a big event. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitched Saturday against the Pirates. It definitely was an event, even though Strasburg got a no-decision in the Nationals' 5-4 win.

Strasburg is the Don Drysdale of this generation, a dominant pitcher unlike all but a few in the long history of his sport. He struck out 14 Pirates in seven innings when he made his much-anticipated big-league debut in a 5-2 win June 8, 2010. It was his greatest strikeout night in what has become a 52-start career. He struck out 13 Pirates in six innings in a 4-2 win May 10, 2012. It was his second-best strikeout game.

Let's do the math, shall we?

Strasburg faced 48 Pirates in those two starts and struck out 27.

It didn't seem unreasonable to think Strasburg might strike out another 27 hitters Saturday.

But Strasburg has scuffled this season to the point he came into this start with a 1-4 record and 3.13 ERA. He hadn't won since opening day, when he gave up no runs and three hits in seven innings against the Miami Marlins. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3-to-1, down from 4.67-to-1 in his first three seasons in the majors.

Strasburg hasn't much resembled the pitcher who went 15-6 last season with a 3.16 ERA before Nationals management shut him down in early September after 28 starts and 1591/3 innings in his first full season after Tommy John elbow surgery. They did so even as the team was headed toward Washington's first postseason appearance in 79 years. His right arm has been among the most scrutinized in baseball, the decision to take the ball from him in a pennant race among the most debated.

But Strasburg still is Strasburg so a lot of us showed up Saturday at PNC Park expecting to see something incredible.

And we did.

Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes hit a two-run home run off Strasburg in the fifth inning to give the Pirates a 4-2 lead.

"I threw a bad pitch before that, to be honest with you," Strasburg said. "I laid that one in there and said, 'Here it is, hit it.' And he hit it."

Pirates left fielder Starling Marte also hit a two-run home run off Strasburg in the third inning. Again, Strasburg left a pitch up and over the plate.

"You just can't do that," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.

Ordinarily when a team gets four earned runs off Strasburg, it had better not blow the game. He had given up that many in just seven of his 45 starts before this season. But the Pirates did blow it, playing one of their worst games in what has been a mostly superb start to the season. Their pitchers walked six batters and hit three more. Barmes and third baseman Pedro Alvarez made errors, Barmes' leading to an unearned run against starter Jeff Locke in the third inning. The Nationals, who had scored two or fewer runs in 14 of their previous 20 games, ended up stranding 11 men but stole the winning run -- literally -- in the ninth inning with a hit batter, a single, a double steal and a sacrifice fly.

"[Strasburg] hung in there and gave us a chance," Johnson said.

Strasburg had given up nine first-inning runs in his six starts this season, but he did some of his best pitching against the Pirates in the first with Marte on third base with one out. Strasburg struck out Andrew McCutchen by getting him to chase a low-and-away pitch, then got Garrett Jones to pop out on a 97-mph fastball.

"I liked the way he started the game," Johnson said. "He went right after them."

Strasburg also pitched out of first-and-second, one-out trouble in the sixth inning. He struck out the over-matched Alvarez on three pitches for the second consecutive at-bat, then got Jordy Mercer to line out to left field.

Any concern the Nationals had about the minor forearm tightness Strasburg felt in his previous start Monday night against the Atlanta Braves was gone. He left this latest start after pitching a 1-2-3 seventh inning, striking out Marte for the second consecutive at-bat to get his final out. It was his eighth strikeout, not his 13th or 14th. Strasburg hardly was disappointed. He was pleased he kept his team in the game.

"That's what it's all about," Strasburg said. "Not every game is going to be lights out and hitting every spot."

Strasburg hit enough for the Nationals to pull out the win. The 27 strikeouts might have to wait until the next time he pitches against the Pirates.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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