Published May 10, 2012
PITTSBURGH – Maybe Davey Johnson should hold all his team meetings on days Stephen Strasburg is pitching.
The Washington Nationals' manager called a brief meeting to give his mildly slumping club a confidence boost and Strasburg responded with another brilliant performance to lift the Nationals to a 4-2 victory over the Pirates on Thursday.
"That's a good night to have a team meeting, isn't it?" Johnson said with a laugh.
Strasburg (3-0) struck out a season-high 13 as Washington snapped a three-game losing streak.
"When the stuff's working like tonight, you've got to go out there and just throw it, and it doesn't really matter what you throw," Strasburg said.
The performance was reminiscent of Strasburg's electric major league debut against the Pirates nearly two years ago. The former No. 1 pick struck out 14 over seven innings on June 8, 2010, to announce to the baseball world the hype was real.
An elbow injury cut short his rookie season and required reconstructive surgery that sidelined Strasburg for a year, and the Nationals have been careful about bringing their ace along slowly.
It might be time to take off the shackles.
"He thinks he's not throwing hard but the ball's coming out of his hand real quick, and he's also got a good changeup and a good curveball," Johnson said. "I mean, he's nasty."
Roger Bernadina and Adam LaRoche both homered in the sixth off Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia (1-3) to erase a two-run deficit. Henry Rodriguez pitched the ninth for his seventh save.
Strasburg (3-0) lowered his ERA to 1.64 by overpowering one of baseball's weaker lineups. He struck out seven straight batters at one point and for a moment it appeared he was on his way to a record-breaking night.
It didn't happen after Strasburg cooled in the later innings, but he made a believer of Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.
"That's a good arm with a kid with a head to work with it," Hurdle said. "The progress he's made in a very short period of time at this level is something."
The Nationals have been one of baseball's biggest surprises over the first month of the season and began the day in a virtual tie for first with Atlanta atop the NL East. Still, Johnson was so concerned after watching his squad drop three straight — including two to Pittsburgh — he called a meeting a couple of hours before the game.
Johnson offered a gentle reminder to his young club that there's no reason to panic, and stressed he wasn't going to let a little dip lead to massive changes.
The way Strasburg is pitching, there's no need.
Still, Pittsburgh somehow steadied itself long enough in the fourth inning to take the lead behind RBI singles from Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.
Correia lacks Strasburg's power and instead kept the Pirates in it with his precision. He cruised through the first five innings but wobbled just long enough in the sixth to give up the lead.
Bernadina led off the sixth with his first home run of the season to put Washington on the board. Ryan Zimmerman walked and LaRoche — a former Pirate who was booed heavily at every turn throughout the series — drilled his sixth homer of the season into the Nationals' bullpen behind the wall in center to put Washington ahead 3-2.
"I needed to be efficient," said Correia, who gave up three runs on six hits in seven innings, striking out one and walking two. "I did that. If I could take back a pitch or two, it could have been a pretty good game. When you're facing one of the better pitchers in the league you've got little room for error and that cost us the game."
Given the lead for the first time all night, Strasburg nearly gave it up. He threw 12 balls during a 14-pitch span to load the bases.
Jones stepped in and knew what was coming and swung at the first pitch he saw, fouling it off. The strike appeared to settle Strasburg's nerves, and he fanned Jones with a 95 mph heater to get out of the jam.
"He gave me a couple pitches to hit," Jones said. "I just swung right through them."
Rick Ankiel added some insurance in the ninth with a solo homer and Rodriguez, who blew a save on Tuesday night in a 5-4 loss, bounced back by handling the Pirates in the bottom of the inning.
"You never want to get swept," LaRoche said. "So any time you're down two games in a series, it's always nice to pick up that last one. (Strasburg) pitched his butt off, got out of a couple jams for us and we were able to score some runs."
Washington rookie outfielder Bryce Harper went 1 for 4 and committed his first major league error in the fourth when he tried to gun down Jose Tabata at the plate. The ball bounced off catcher Jesus Flores, allowing McCutchen to move to second.
NOTES: Pittsburgh starter Erik Bedard, who left Wednesday's game after eight pitches due to back spasms, felt better on Thursday. ... Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward took batting practice and threw out the first pitch. Ward, who retired in March, was selected in the 73rd round of the 1994 MLB Draft by the Florida Marlins. He chose to play football at Georgia instead. ... The Nationals continue a six-game road trip on Friday in Cincinnati. Washington's Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 1.72 ERA) faces Mike Leake (0-4, 5.97). ... The Pirates host Houston on Friday. James McDonald (2-1, 2.70) starts for Pittsburgh against Bud Norris (2-1, 5.48).