WASHINGTON -- It already has the makings of a special season for Stephen Strasburg, but the Nationals starting pitcher could not have been expected to be this good in his first game off of the disabled list.
Strasburg pitched 6 2/3 hitless innings while being backed by six home runs -- including two from freshly-minted Reds slayer Danny Espinosa -- for a 12-1 Washington victory on Sunday over Cincinnati to take three of four in the series. It improved his record to 11-0 with a 2.71 ERA.
Espinosa went 4-for-5 with his second grand slam of the series and homers from both sides of the plate in a six-RBI day. For the series, Espinosa hit five homers with 15 RBIs against the Reds.
In his first start since June 15 and after dealing with an upper back strain, Strasburg issued four walks and racked up a high pitch count that made thoughts of going for the no-hitter himself unlikely. He was at 93 pitches when he returned for the seventh inning and began to labor as he issued a one-out walk before getting the second out with his 109th pitch. That's when Nationals manager Dusty Baker emerged and removed Strasburg for Blake Treinen.
"Strasburg threw an outstanding game. We were trying to get him into the seventh, but his pitch count was kind of high because it was his first time out there," Baker said. "It was tough taking a guy out with a no hitter, but we have to think about the future. He was coming off the DL."
After coming off the DL, Strasburg wasn't expecting to be at his best.
"It was weird, warming up my changeup was the only pitch I could really locate, and then I couldn't find the strike zone with it today, but the curveball and slider were really good," Strasburg said.
Treinen got the final out of the seventh to briefly keep the combined no-hitter alive. Ramon Cabrera broke it up when he led off the eighth with a single to left field against Matt Belisle. Cincinnati notched three hits in the inning, including the RBI single by Jose Peraza that foiled the shutout bid.
"He scuffled a little bit with his command and we had some good at-bats in the first inning, a 25-pitch inning," Reds manager Bryan Price said of Strasburg. "I think he threw 16 the next two, because he had 41 after three and he was able to get some quick outs. We were able to after that at least get some pitches under his belt so he had to go out there for the seventh with a relatively high pitch count considering he had a no-hitter."
Wilson Ramos gave Washington a 1-0 lead with a first-pitch, no-doubt homer to left field off of Reds starter John Lamb in the second inning. The game was blown wide open in the fourth when Lamb began by walking the bases loaded with no outs before Espinosa's grand slam --- a drive to left field -- made it a 5-0 game. A three-run fifth inning, that began with Bryce Harper's leadoff homer to right, turned the game into a rout.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Espi is the man: Espinosa went 4-for-5 and drove in six runs, including a fourth-inning grand slam off Lamb -- his second slam of the series. He also hit a home run from both sides of the plate for the second time in a span of four days. Espinosa's 15 RBIs in the series are two short of the Major League record set by Boston's Rudy York against the Cardinals on July 26, 1946.
"I couldn't dream anything like this could ever happen. It's unreal. It's crazy. It doesn't feel real," Espinosa said. "Some of my at-bats I took deep and just kept battling. I stuck with my plan up there and things turned out well." More >
Promising start, poor finish: Before things went off the rails for Lamb, his day began optimistically in a scoreless 13-pitch first inning. He artfully changed speeds that peaked at 91 mph and dipped into the 60s, including the 68-mph changeup that caught Jayson Werth looking for the second out. Washington certainly figured things out after that as Lamb was done after 4 1/3 innings, with a career-high eight earned runs, eight hits, four walks and five strikeouts. More >
Strasburg doesn't complete the game: Strasburg threw too many pitches (109) to complete the no-hitter. It didn't help that Strasburg walked five batters. He needed help from Treinen, Belisle and Oliver Perez to finish the game.
"Yeah, I understand where [Baker was] coming from, yeah. There's more important things, hopefully, down the road for this team," Strasburg said. More >
Bullpen blues: When Jumbo Diaz took over for the Reds in the eighth, leadoff batter Stephen Drew hit a 0-2 pitch for a homer to left field. It was the Major League-leading 18th time this season a Cincinnati reliever allowed a home run on the first batter he faced. Diaz was hit on the right ankle by a Ramos line drive to the mound on the next play and left two batters later when he couldn't continue. X-rays were negative and Diaz is listed as day to day.
"I'm definitely enjoying it. I'm just staying who I am and not going to go crazy. Just enjoy it. Things don't last forever and I'm going to enjoy the moment that I'm in right now." -- Espinosa, on his huge series vs. the Reds
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Nationals hit six home runs on Sunday, which is a season high and ties a Nationals record.
DEEP STRUGGLES FOR REDS
Not only have the Reds dropped six of their last seven, they have lost 10 of 12 and 15 of the last 21 games as their record dropped to 30-53. The frustration is building as fast as the losses are mounting for the rebuilding club.
"You're all watching the same game I'm watching," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "It's tough. It's not fun, at all. I don't think anyone here is having much fun. We just have to get better. It is a grind. It's tough to come in and play games like that fairly often. But we have to continue to improve and continue to expect a certain level of preparation and execution and just work on getting better. It's just the bottom line. It's not one facet of the game, it's everything. We have to be collectively better as a ballclub."
WHAT'S NEXT Reds: The road trip moves to Chicago at 2:20 p.m. ET Monday when a three-game series opens vs. the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Cody Reed, who gave up seven runs and nine hits over four innings to the Cubs in his previous start, will seek to have better results this time around.
Nationals:Max Scherzer will make his first July 4 start for the Nationals, getting the ball in the annual 11 a.m. game on Monday. This time it will be against the Brewers. Scherzer is 9-5 with a 2.62 ERA in 18 day games since joining the Nationals.