Friday night in game one of three for the Washington Nationals in Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox rallied in the sixth inning of what was then a 7-2 game. 23-year-old Nats' right-hander Stephen Strasburg gave up a one-out single by Dustin Pedroia and a double by Adrian Gonzalez before walking David Ortiz to load the bases with one out. Strasburg was up to 106 pitches, two pitches away from his career-high. Pitching coach Steve McCatty paid the pitcher a visit.
The Nationals' starter battled Red Sox' backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia for seven-pitches in the next at bat, which ended when the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick dropped an 82 mph 2-2 curve on the overmatched catcher for a swinging strike three and Strasburg's 12th K in 5.2 IP. Kevin Youkilis worked the count full in the AB that followed and took a called strike three that he thought was low. The Red Sox' third baseman exploded on home plate umpire Doug Eddings and got himself tossed after striking out for the third time in three trips to the plate against the Nats' right-hander. It was a strike. Strasburg jogged off the mound with his 13th K and the highest pitch total of his career, 119 pitches.
Strasburg allowed four hits, two walks, two runs, both earned, and struck out 13 in 6.0 IP in his 12th start of 2012. After a quick 1-2-3 first he gave up a leadoff walk, two-out single and two-run double in the second, then proceeded to retire eleven-straight batters before surrendering the one-out single by Pedroia which started the trouble for Strasburg in the sixth. "Obviously Stras [had] a little rusty start," Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, "But he was throwing the heck out of the ball. Got a little out of sorts I thought there early in the ballgame, but came back and started really going after them."
"I was looking that maybe I was going to have to hold him to five [innings]," the 69-year-old, second-year skipper said, but he sent Strasburg back out and wasn't about to pull his pitcher when Strasburg loaded the bases. "There's no way I'm hooking him with the bases loaded," Johnson explained, "I don't care what his pitch count was. I was going to have to fight ownership if I let him go too long, but I didn't want to have to fight Stras if I went to take him out. But it was just a great effort."
"With his runners on there in a game he was pitching," Johnson continued, "there was no way I was going to hook him." Johnson left his starter in and the right-hander pitched out of trouble. "I knew it was a little high pitch count and it was a little farther than I'd normally want to take him, but he's fine." As Johnson hinted and Nats' bench coach Randy Knorr told reporters (including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak) explicitly on Sunday, there was no way anyone was taking Strasburg out because, quite simply, "'He might have killed all of us.'"
It wasn't the first time the Nationals have openly discussed their 23-year-old right-hander's surly demeanor. Before Strasburg's Opening Day start in Chicago, the Nats' 69-year-old manager was asked if he'd spoken to his pitcher to make sure he didn't get too amped up for his first start of the year in front of a packed house in Wrigley Field?
Johnson admitted that neither he nor pitching coach Steve McCatty really liked going near Strasburg when the pitcher was preparing to take the mound, but the skipper and his coaches were fine with that.
"Let me tell you," the manager said, "I was teammates with a guy in Baltimore named Mike Cuellar. He was the happiest go-lucky guy in the world, except the day he pitched and then he was crazy horse. I mean, you couldn't talk to him, he was grumpy, and some guys are like that. Stras is... he's like that."
"McCatty hadn't been able to talk to him," Davey Johnson joked with reporters, "Finally they started talking a little bit. But when he's pitching, McCatty doesn't want to go near him, but some guys are like that. It's not a bad thing."
After he went through a stretch of three (what were in his mind, at least) rough outings following his last 13-K start against the Pirates back on May 10th, Strasburg bounced back with 7.0 shutout innings against the Braves last Saturday in which he struck out out nine without allowing a walk. It was a return to form for the right-hander his manager explained after the game, and more importantly, the good start would make the ornery hurler easier to be around, for a little while at least.
"That's him," Johnson told reporters, "I've seen it time and time again. Low pitch count, strikes out a bunch of people and pitches that kind of ballgame. And since he'd had those three rough outings, in his mind, we can live with him now for four or five days."
Saturday night in game two of three for the Nationals in Fenway Park, Davey Johnson faced a similar decision with 26-year-old left-hander Gio Gonzalez on the hill at 84 pitches after six scoreless against the Red Sox. When Gonzalez gave up a one-out walk, the noticeably agitated pitcher got a visit from Steve McCatty. A single by Mike Aviles in the next at bat ended his night. The Nats' manager didn't hesitate to lift his pitcher. Craig Stammen came on and walked Ryan Sweeney to load the bases and Michael Gonzalez replaced Stammen, giving up a two-run single that brought in both of the runners Gonzalez had put on before getting out of the inning.
"Gio pitched a great ballgame," Johnson told reporters after the game, "And I know I left myself wide-open to be second-guessed, but I just don't like it when [Gonzalez] starts rushing and he starts getting a little wild. And, of course, I bring a guy in that's wilder than him, but [Michael] Gonzalez did a great job getting us out of the jam and my other guys did there job." As for Gio Gonzalez, Johnson said that he just didn't like what he was seeing from the left-hander. "I've seen him get in those situations," the manager said, "Where he just kind of speeds up like he's trying to get to the finish line. And I've stayed with him numerous times, but I didn't have that good feeling today in this ballpark, maybe it's just this ballpark, but I knew I left myself open there not letting himself work his way out of it like I did Stras."
There might have been second-guessing if it didn't ultimately end up being the right decision. In back-to-back games the Nats' manager made the right choice. Gio Gonzalez might not have liked the decision. He may have worked his way out of trouble if his manager had left him in, but Johnson didn't like what he saw and made the call. Davey Johnson told reporters the decision also reflected his overall philosophy of not overworking his pitchers early in the season.
"This is for the first half," Johnson explained, "I'm always quicker on the draw, on the hook, early in the season. When we get into later on in the season I want them fresher to go longer. I'm working my bullpen pretty good and my bullpen is in kind of disarray right now with some injuries, but I'm taking them as far as I normally do this time of year." The veteran of 16 seasons on the bench in the majors sees the big picture in individual games and over the course of the season. Gonzalez's teammates preserved the lead and helped him earn his eighth win of the season. Any frustration the pitcher felt was gone as he and Johnson congratulated each other on the field after the game.
The stoic, quietly intense Stephen Strasburg. The animated, easily frustrated and emotional Gio Gonzalez. Davey Johnson's handled them both expertly all season, letting them work out of trouble, lifting them before they lose control. After 12 starts the Nationals' no.1 and 2 starters have the sixth and third-lowest ERA's, respectively, in the National League. They have the NL's second and third-lowest FIP with Gonzalez at 2.05 and Strasburg at 2.11. They have the second and fourth lowest xFIP with Strasburg and 2.39 and Gonzalez at 2.89 and they're second and third in fWAR with Strasburg at +2.7 fWAR and Gonzalez +2.6 behind only Milwaukee's Zack Greinke (+2.8 fWAR). After the weekend's starts they're also one and two in K/9 with Strasburg at 11.66 K/9 and Gonzalez at 11.02 K/9.
"And it's no picnic," facing Jordan Zimmermann after Strasburg and Gonzalez the Nats' manager told reporters, "Or any of our starters. And that's why we're where we're at, because they've done a great job to this point." Davey Johnson hasn't done too bad a job managing his pitchers either.