MLB.com Columnist

Paul Hagen

Strasburg returns to form in first start off DL

Strasburg returns to form in first start off DL

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes, one game can change everything.

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It was right here at Nationals Park, back on May 6, when Bryce Harper launched three home runs, each more magnificent than the last. Before that, people talked about his potential. Since then, they've marveled at Harper's performance. In 40 games since, he's hitting .404 with 19 homers, 42 RBIs and a ridiculous 1.189 OPS.

The Nationals are hoping that Stephen Strasburg's start Tuesday night -- five shutout innings, four hits and a walk, six strikeouts in a 3-1 win over Atlanta -- will become a similar turning point.

Strasburg -- linked forever with Harper in Nats lore as the back-to-back first overall Draft picks in 2009 and '10, respectively, that helped turn the franchise around -- was making his first Major League appearance since May 29 after spending time on the disabled list with neck tightness.

Understand this: Strasburg will never be just another pitcher. Not in Washington, anyway. No matter that the first pitch of the game was delayed more than two hours by a torrential downpour. No matter that his ERA was an unsightly 6.55. No matter that teammate Max Scherzer has grabbed the national headlines by following a one-hitter with a no-hitter, striking out 26, in his past two starts.

When Strasburg starts, it's an event. And his comeback was encouraging, to say the least.

Williams on Strasburg's return

While that doesn't necessarily mean Strasburg is about to get on a roll, to snap back to the form he had in 2014 when he tied for the league lead with 242 strikeouts, there was nothing about his outing that suggested he couldn't, either.

It almost goes without saying that if this does, in fact, signify that the 26-year-old is back on track, the Nationals' chances of winning the National League East for the third time in the past four seasons just got a huge boost.

"I thought he pitched well," manager Matt Williams said. "I thought he was in command out there. His fastball was sitting 95 and touching 97, 98. He can do that. I just think this was a real good step for him."

Braves first baseman Chris Johnson said this was vintage Strasburg.

"He's pretty good. This guy had his good stuff," Johnson said. "He was throwing the ball real hard and his curveball was looking pretty good. He was working both sides of the plate."

Atlanta was able to foul off enough pitches to raise Strasburg's pitch count, but the Braves only got a runner past first once.

"It was good to get back out there," Strasburg said. "I've been working really hard to get things going in the right direction, and [I] was able to go out there and keep the lead. I just wanted to go out there and execute pitches and pitch my game. I really just tried to pitch to my strengths.

"They did a good job of fighting pitches off and working up my pitch count, but that's not something I'm going to worry about. I'm just going to make them go out there and hit the fastball."

Strasburg goes five scoreless

The Nats were looking for three things from Strasburg in this start.

First, naturally, that he was fully recovered. Check.

"I think it was big for him health-wise. Any time you step on the mound or to the plate or play defense and you're not 100 percent, you don't feel good, something's wrong, it's never any fun," Williams said. "He had no discomfort, which is great. He went out and was aggressive. It helps when you feel good and you don't have any issues."

Second, that Strasburg had ironed out some mechanical issues, specifically striding directly toward the plate, without consciously thinking about it which would in turn allow him to command his pitches and reach back for a little extra when he had to. Check.

Strasburg threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes. And the only time he was in a jam, with runners on second and third and one out in the fifth, he responded by striking out Jace Peterson and Cameron Maybin to end the inning.

"All the time I was away, I was working on the mechanics and fine-tuning things," said Strasburg, "but when you go out there between the lines, it's time to compete. So I wasn't going to think about mechanics at all. I was just going to go out there and give it everything I had."

Third, and most importantly, that Strasburg competed. Which he clearly did. Check.

Williams noted that even a pitcher as talented as Strasburg gains confidence from having success.

"When something's not going right for you, whatever the cause, then it's difficult to compete," Williams said. "In this game, he had no issue, which was a positive for us. He had some [pitch count] limitations. The next time, he won't have any."

It was just one game. Sometimes, though, that's all it takes to turn a season around.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.