Stephen Strasburg put Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker in one of those sanity-testing positions that even a blowout win like Sunday’s 12-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds cannot make less complicated: Hours after he was activated from a two-week stint on the disabled list, a month and a half after the Nationals signed him to a seven-year extension, Strasburg carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, towing a high pitch count along, too.
The last 15 or so pitches Strasburg threw had not been as sharp as the first six innings’ worth — a change-up yanked wide, a fastball that missed up, and the like. So after Brandon Phillips grounded out on Strasburg’s 109th pitch, Baker walked out to the mound and took the ball. Strasburg walked off to an ovation. The Reds put together three hits and a run off Matt Belisle in the eighth to end a team no-hit bid and the shutout, but by then, the Nationals had clinched their 50th win of the season.
“I understand where he’s coming from, yeah,” Strasburg said. “There’s more important things, hopefully, down the road for this team.”
Strasburg had plenty of runs to work with because Danny Espinosa homered twice — one of them a grand slam — and finished a remarkable four-game series with 15 RBI. Baker did not have to worry about preserving a win because the Nationals hit a season-high six home runs.
Baker has agonized over decisions like this before, most memorably when Max Scherzer struck out 20 Tigers on May 11, his pitch count climbing high into the ninth. That night, Baker stood on the top step of the dugout, then stepped back, up, then back, marching between pursuing history and health concerns. Sunday’s decision, he said later, was not as difficult.
“It’s tough taking a guy out of a no-hitter,” Baker said, “but we have to think about the future and where he had come from off the DL.”
Strasburg’s name was in the lineup when the clubhouse attendant posted it Sunday morning, but he was not yet on the 25-man roster. Strasburg was warming in the bullpen 15 minutes before first pitch, but as far as anyone could tell, the team had not activated him from the disabled list. Not until Baker carried the official scorecard out to home plate did the team announce the roster move: After missing two starts with a strained upper back, Strasburg was active and right-hander Joe Ross was placed on the DL with right shoulder inflammation.
Strasburg said later that he knew last week that he could make the start. But because of last year’s trouble with unpredictable injuries, and because this “upper-back strain” — which apparently also included a few ribs popped out of place — fit that pattern of unpredictability so perfectly, the Nationals wanted to be cautious. So much uncertainty hovered over the whole afternoon that one could easily forget that, when healthy, Strasburg has been the most certain thing in this rotation all season.
After Sunday’s 6⅔ no-hit innings, back trouble is still the only thing to beat him this season. He is 11-0, the only qualified starter in the majors with a 1.000 winning percentage. The Nationals are 18-1 in his past 19 starts. He has not lost since last September.
“It was awesome to see him come off the DL and see him throw like that,” Espinosa said. “He’s a huge part of this team and a huge part of a reason why we win.”
Espinosa was a huge part of the reason the Nationals won the weekend series, their 15th series win in 26 tries. Perhaps a no-hit bid was one of the only things that could have stolen attention from Espinosa, who nearly drove home as many runs — 15 — in the four-game set with the Reds as his opponents scored — 16 — in all.
“Boy, that was a series of a lifetime right there,” Baker said. “That’s a good month.”
Espinosa homered twice Sunday, once from each side of the plate, the second time in four days he has done that. He hit a grand slam, the second time in four days he has done that. He took the team lead in home runs from Bryce Harper, who also homered Sunday. Espinosa finished 4 for 5 with six RBI and has 18 homers this season.
That offense took pressure off Strasburg, who walked two batters in the first inning and another in the fourth. He did not have the kind of strikeout count — four in the first six innings — that would suggest any kind of dominance above and beyond his usual. But by the end of the sixth inning, he had not allowed a hit. His most threatening no-hit bid before Sunday lasted 4⅔ innings.
“He was very good,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, who hit his 13th homer and doubled in a run, too. “I know that if it weren’t for the pitch count and because he was coming off the injury, I’m sure he would’ve been able to do it.”
By the end of it all, Strasburg was in the clubhouse, healthy and victorious, which is all that will matter five days from now, when it is the unbeaten ace’s turn to pitch again.