Stephen Strasburg took a while to establish himself as a postseason force—he was quite famously held out of the 2012 playoffs after hitting the innings limit the team set for the young phenom—but this October, he’s authored an all-time great playoff legacy.
After Tuesday’s 7-2 Game 6 win, the Nationals have now won the past seven postseason games Strasburg has appeared in, including four elimination games, dating back to 2017. His season-saving outing of 8 1/3 innings, two earned runs, and seven strikeouts brought Strasburg’s career postseason ERA up—up!—to 1.46, which is lower than the career postseason ERAs of Madison Bumgarner, Curt Schilling, or Bob Gibson. Of Washington’s three aces, Strasburg is the most reliable by far, as Patrick Corbin has been prone to the occasional first-inning blowup and three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer has struggled, at one time or another, with his command and with debilitating muscle spasms.
The statistical weight of Strasburg’s performance is impressive enough, but it doesn’t quite do it justice. The two runs that Strasburg allowed on Tuesday came in the first inning, in which Strasburg allowed a home run to Alex Bregman, a scalded double to George Springer, and two warning-track fly outs. It was, he revealed to Tom Verducci after the game, the latest escapade in Houston’s vaunted pitch-tipping operation, which had previously felled Yu Darvish in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and Tyler Glasnow in Game 5 of the 2019 ALDS.
But unlike his doomed predecessors, Strasburg and pitching coach Paul Menhart corrected the tell before the Astros put the game out of reach, and the 31-year-old former no. 1 pick grew into the game. There were bumps along the way: With two outs in the fourth inning Strasburg struggled to locate his curveball and on just nine pitches issued two straight walks, doubling his total for the entire postseason. And in the fifth inning, right after Adam Eaton and Juan Soto had retaken the lead, Strasburg allowed back-to-back hits to put two Astros in scoring position with one out. He escaped both jams without incident, in the latter case by almost making José Altuve fall over whiffing on a curveball.
Stephen Strasburg, Wicked 87mph Changeup and 81mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/5aaDQbZMJW— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 30, 2019
The Nationals came into this postseason with the least trustworthy bullpen in the playoff field, and confidence in that unit is at a low point after the Astros tagged closer Daniel Hudson—one of two crucial Washington relievers—for three runs in garbage time of Game 5. Strasburg needed to keep Washington in the game through at least six innings in order to keep the Nats’ shaky middle relievers from playing a part in the action, but he did even better than that.
From the sixth inning on, Strasburg retired the last 10 batters he faced, and needed just 21 total pitches to do it. He insinuated his fastball inside to tie up opposing hitters, then dropped parabolic curveballs and tumbling changeups to keep them off-balance. By the time Nationals bench coach Chip Hale pulled Strasburg with one out in the ninth—manager Dave Martinez was ejected after a protracted argument over a seventh-inning interference call—Washington had a five-run lead and the game was all but won.
For all the standout starting pitching performances of the 2019 postseason, there hasn’t been a complete game in the playoffs since Justin Verlander’s nine-inning gem in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS. Nor has there been a World Series complete game since Johnny Cueto’s in 2015. Even so, it was surprising that Hale thought Strasburg needed help to finish the game. Strasburg had thrown only 104 pitches, with only two outs to get. And though Sean Doolittle needed just 11 pitches to close it out, bringing him in gave left-handed Astros masher Yordan Álvarez another look at the bespectacled lefty, increasing, however infinitesimally, the likelihood that Álvarez would win a confrontation in the final game of the series. A Game 7 relief appearance for Strasburg, a day after a 104-pitch outing, would come as a tremendous shock. That means there’s nothing left to save Strasburg for, and he could surely have thrown those 11 pitches himself.
The frustration at seeing Doolittle is admittedly as much for emotional and narrative reasons as tactical ones, as the impact of Hale’s one managerial decision is likely to be negligible in the grand scheme of things. The reality is that it would have felt right for Strasburg to have completed the game, for him to put the team on his gigantic shoulders and take care of business all on his own, as he’s done so many times over the course of this postseason.
As great as Scherzer is, and as much as Soto and Anthony Rendon have redefined the terms of their own stardom this month, Strasburg has been the most indispensable National. If Washington completes its comeback and wins Game 7, Strasburg would get my vote for series MVP for his pair of victories over Verlander in Houston. On a team that so frequently scrambles to fill gaps in its pitching staff, nobody has provided better innings, or more of them, than Strasburg.
Seven years ago, Washington GM Mike Rizzo aimed to protect Strasburg’s future by holding him out of the 2012 postseason. The young right-hander was just a year removed from Tommy John surgery, and had already thrown as many innings as Rizzo felt comfortable subjecting his arm to. Rizzo stuck to his plan even as Washington went on a surprise run to the playoffs, where the Nationals lost in the first round. What could Rizzo possibly have been saving Strasburg for that was more important than a 2012 NLDS start?
This, it turns out, though he had no way of knowing at the time. A series of postseason masterpieces, a combination of excellence and volume to meet or even exceed the hideously unfair expectations that get heaped on great pitchers each October: perfection, or at least victory, every time out. That much Strasburg has delivered, and in so doing he’s kept his team alive over and over again.
After the World Series, Strasburg will have the opportunity to opt out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract and become a free agent. If he does so, and he probably will, Strasburg will be one of the most sought-after free agents of the winter, and as a postseason hero and likely Cy Young finalist, he’ll be able to write his own ticket. If Game 6 was his last appearance in a Nationals uniform, it’s hard to think of a better way to go out, or to imagine what more Washington could have asked of him that he hasn’t provided.