Stephen Strasburg remained on the mound, his pitch count hitting 100 without any sign of stopping. Out in the Nationals bullpen every reliever was firmly planted on the bench, no one so much as soft-tossing in case of an emergency.
Strasburg had one inning left to him on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays and he intended to finish it. Nine pitches and two strikeouts later his mission was accomplished and Washington's relievers sprang into action to seal a 3-2 victory at Nationals Park.
It was a lot harder than it looked. The Nats (39-27) scored all three of their runs in the first inning and put just one runner on base afterwards. By the third inning, a Jose Molina home run and a Hideki Matsui RBI single had cut the lead to 3-2. There was no margin for error.
But Strasburg was up to the task. He doesn't consider himself a stopper, arguing that any pitcher on the staff is capable of halting a long losing streak. After dropping four in a row during a disappointing homestand, however, there's also no one else Washington wanted on the mound. Strasburg completed seven innings with those two runs allowed on five hits and two walks. He struck out 10 batters, too.
"[Strasburg] threw a great game and he looked really good," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Every pitch was working for him. It's always fun to watch him pitch. With him on the mound you have a lot of confidence you're winning that game that day."
In the first true summer day of the season, with the temperature still at 93 degrees at game time and the humidity adding to the misery, Strasburg needed 60 pitches to get through the third inning. It looked like his day would be a short one. But he steadied himself and was economical with his pitches thereafter. Only Desmond Jennings (single) and Elliot Johnson (double) reached base for Tampa Bay after the third. Strasburg's 113 pitches were the second-most he's thrown in a game this season.
"I think the sixth inning kind of proved to [manager Davey Johnson] that I was still strong," Strasburg said. "It was a quick inning there and it was a good feeling to go out there and go through seven."
It was only the fourth time in 14 starts that Strasburg has completed seven innings. He still has not pitched into the eighth this season. The key defensive play behind him came from an unlikely source: infielder-turned outfielder Steve Lombardozzi, who went back on a ball hit by Molina with two outs in the sixth inning, realized his mistake and sprinted towards the infield. Lombardozzi made a diving catch to keep the tying run from scoring. He later claimed it was the first diving play he's made in either a game or in practice drills.
"Some guys were goofing with me a little bit," Lombardozzi said. "I was kind of goofing, too, because I kind of turned that play into a web gem myself. I made it harder than it should have been."
Reliever Sean Burnett gave up a leadoff single in the eighth, but ended that frame with a 6-4-3 double play. Tyler Clippard dispatched the Rays in the ninth with a fly out to left sandwiched between two swinging strikeouts.
Lombardozzi began Washington's early rally with a double into right-center. Harper drove him home with an RBI single. A botched throw on a fielders' choice grounder bounced off the glove of third baseman Sean Rodriguez. The ball rolled slowly towards the Tampa Bay dugout and neither Rodriguez nor Molina could get there in time.
That allowed Harper, who admitted he had made a "terrible read" on the play initially, to be awarded home. Ryan Zimmerman went to second on the error, took third on a wild pitch and scored on an Ian Desmond single. It was all the offense the Nats would need thanks to Strasburg, who is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA.
"He's a true No. 1 [pitcher]," Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."