If Mother Nature was trying to tell Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals something they ignored it completely.
With every inning left to him in this 2012 season a precious one, Strasburg had tossed just 22Ú3 on Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves when a heavy rain shower appeared almost exclusively over Nationals Park. Was this an especially creative way to give Strasburg an extra start this season, possibly pushing him even deeper into September as the pennant race heats up?
If the bait was there, Washington chose not to bite. Strasburg simply waited out the 51-minute rain delay and continued on to one of his best starts of the season in a 4-1 victory over Atlanta.
"I didn't like the way he was throwing so I wanted to see him go back out," manager Davey Johnson said to much laughter afterwards. "[Strasburg] was throwing the heck out of the ball and he had the luxury of being able to throw a couple times in our batting cage so I felt like he was still pretty hot."
Strasburg gave up two hits before the rain with no collateral damage on the scoreboard. He didn't miss a beat upon his return, striking out the first batter he saw after the delay, Martin Prado, and six of the first eight he faced. Strasburg gave up four hits total and one walk and struck out 10 batters in six full innings. The Braves' lone run scored on a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly in the sixth. Strasburg threw 94 pitches, 61 of them for strikes. There's still no word on a specific innings limit before his season ends, but he is at 1451Ú3 innings now with a 2.85 ERA.
"It's funny, nobody talks to me personally about it," Strasburg said of his impending shut down. "So obviously I can either scour the internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."
With the bullpen ravaged after a long 13-inning game on Monday night against Atlanta, it was a gutty performance from Strasburg to at least help save his relievers some work. He also lifted Washington to its 14th win in 17 games, a hot streak that has put it in firm control of the National League East title chase.
The Nats (77-46) are now 31 games over .500 and a formidable seven games ahead of Atlanta (70-53) after winning the first two games of the series. The finale is Wednesday night with Ross Detwiler on the mound trying for the decisive sweep. There are only 39 games left in the regular season, and the Braves see Washington just once more with a three-game series in Atlanta starting Sept. 14.
"I think we all just focus every day, playing every game one game at a time," catcher Jesus Flores said. "We don't worry about anything else. I think that's helping us to just stay relaxed, not think about anything else. Just the result is day-by-day winning the game."
Strasburg had plenty of help. The tired bullpen still received scoreless innings from Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and closer Tyler Clippard. Burnett escaped a first-and-second, one-out jam in the eighth inning when he fielded a Prado comebacker to the mound, whipped a throw to Ian Desmond waiting at second base and on to first for a double play as the crowd of 33,888 exploded.
Desmond had already homered in the second inning -- his second in as many days -- and extended his new Montreal/Washington franchise record for homers by a shortstop to 19.
Flores, whose playing time has been limited since the acquisition of Kurt Suzuki earlier this month, stated his case for more playing time with a three-run homer to left in the fifth inning. At the time, that extended the Nats' advantage to 4-0 and was all Strasburg and his relievers would need.
"It's got a little bit more riding on it," Strasburg said. "Obviously, we want to win it and beat them and give us a little more room in the division. But at the same time, it's another game. I don't think I take any team lightly."