Never mind that it has been 67 long years since baseball fans in the nation’s capital have experienced the thrill of a pennant race this late in the season.
The first-place Nationals are telling everyone that, no matter what, they intend to shut down the ace of their pitching staff, Stephen Strasburg, in order to preserve him for the future.
They won’t receive any argument from the Marlins, who will be more than happy to see Strasburg, who is two years removed from Tommy John surgery, out of the way and out of their hair. For the third time this season, Strasburg held the Marlins without a run as the Nationals prevailed 4-1 on Sunday.
“Fine with me,” catcher John Buck said with a wry grin. “I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Why would you want to risk your franchise player like that?”
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The Marlins may or may not see Strasburg again this season. Speculation is that Washington will bring the pitcher’s season to an end in early September, and the Marlins have only two more meetings with Washington: a two-game set in late August and a three-game series at Nationals Park on Sept. 7-9.
Then again, if the Nationals decide to have Strasburg go out on a winning note, the Marlins might be just the team to have him face in his season swan song. After all, the Marlins haven’t touched him this season.
Strasburg went six innings Sunday, holding the Marlins scoreless while allowing only three hits and a walk. In his three outings totaling 18 innings against the Marlins this season, Strasburg has yielded only 13 hits without allowing a run.
“He’s got several ways to get you out,” said Buck, who struck out in both of his at-bats against the 24-year-old ace. “Everything looks so fluid and easy. The fastball’s sneaky. The curveball is real sharp. Now he’s decided to throw a changeup in the mix. It’s pretty nasty, as well.”
Then again, the present Marlins lineup can make any pitcher look good.
The three members of the Marlins’ opening night outfield are all on the disabled list and three of the team’s four starting infielders from then have been traded. Buck and shortstop Jose Reyes, who extended his hitting streak on Sunday to a career-high 24 games, are the only players on the Marlins’ active roster who were in the Opening Day lineup.
Reyes’ fourth-inning single to center was one of the three hits allowed by Strasburg, but it kept his streak alive — the longest hitting streak in the majors this season.
The other two hits belonged to Scott Cousins. Otherwise, the rest of the lineup looked helpless as Strasburg struck out six before turning the ball over to the Nationals bullpen in the seventh, which was when the Marlins got on the board with a run off reliever Craig Stammen on back-to-back doubles by Carlos Lee and Greg Dobbs.
By then, however, it was too late.
Ricky Nolasco gave up four runs in the second, with Strasburg driving in the first two with a one-out single and Adam LaRoche taking care of the other two with his two-out single.
“They had me on the ropes there early,” Nolasco said. “I was just trying to hang on and survive and give my team a chance. I made a mistake on [LaRoche] with two outs, just when I thought I was going to catch a break and get out of the inning.”
Nolasco struck out rookie Bryce Harper in the fourth, prompting Harper to slap his bat down near home plate and causing it to break in half. The barrel could have struck either Buck or home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth had it bounced the wrong way.
Buck said Harper, 19, apologized to him his next at bat.
“He said he was really sorry, that it was terrible,” Buck said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, kid. I did the same thing. But when I was your age, it was a metal bat and I was in high school.’ It’s a learning experience for him. I bet you he won’t do it anymore.”