Nats' ace could be first since Clemens in '86 to achieve feat
By Matt Kelly
Fans of the Washington Nationals can probably still tell you where they were the night of June 8, 2010, when Stephen Strasburg -- a tall right-hander who had already been called the "most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball" by Sports Illustrated -- struck out a then-franchise record 14 batters in his Major League debut.
It's been a roller-coaster ride for Strasburg since that night, with surgeries and pitch-count limits dominating much of the conversation around him for the last several years. But in 2016, with his body back to relatively full health, Strasburg appears to be finally putting all the pieces together. As the season prepares for its stretch run, Washington's ace remarkably has still not lost a game.
Strasburg's pursuit of a 14-0 record is just one thing to keep an eye on as part of a nine-game schedule Thursday across the Majors. Elsewhere, a pair of streaking starters collide in St. Louis, and the Yankees aim to continue their fight back into postseason contention in the Bronx.
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Here is a look at what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
Keen on 14: LAD@WSH, 12:05 p.m.
Strasburg is already the first NL pitcher since Hall of Famer Rube Marquard in 1912 to begin a season by winning his first 13 decisions as a starter. Next up on his historic to-do list: Seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, who was the last starting pitcher in baseball to race out to a 14-0 start in 1986. If you belong to the camp that feels that that wins don't accurately tell the whole story, Strasburg also entered Wednesday among the Majors' top 10 starters in WHIP (0.99), opponents' batting average (.195) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.83).
So what's been the key to Strasburg's improvement? Well to start, Strasburg has tossed 66.4 percent of his pitches for strikes this season, but has allowed hard-hit contact on just 24.4 percent of batted balls against him. That's his lowest rate over a full season during his seven-year career.
"He's been very effective attacking the zone, keeping the ball down," Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos said after Strasburg's last start against the Pirates. "Usually a starter that attacks the zone like that and doesn't miss his spots very much will usually has success like he's been having."
Teenager Julio Urias will make his big league return for the Dodgers opposite Strasburg. Urias, 19, who threw just one inning at Triple-A Oklahoma City since his demotion on July 5, gave up only two runs over five innings against the Nationals on June 22.
Stat that matters: Not a single player on the Dodgers' current 25-man roster has hit a home run off Strasburg. In fact, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is Los Angeles' only everyday player with an extra-base hit (a double) in his career off the Washington ace.
Suitors will be watching Cashner: SD@STL, 7:15 p.m.
The Padres' Andrew Cashner looks to follow up his best start of 2016. Matched up against Madison Bumgarner last Friday night in San Diego, Cashner struck out a season-high nine Giants batters while allowing just one run on four hits to defeat the San Francisco ace. The big right-hander has had a down year overall, but his dominant start against the Giants apparently caught teams' attention. MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi reported Wednesday that the Marlins and Orioles -- and perhaps others -- are looking at Cashner for a potential deal before the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Cashner will have another ace on his docket in the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, who has coughed up just one earned run over his last three starts (23 innings pitched). Wainwright, who recently told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he is once again hearing "the music" that plays in his head whenever he feels in complete control on the mound, is finding his rhythm at the right time.
Stat that matters: St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz leads all qualified NL rookie batters with a .387 on-base percentage and has reached base in 23 straight games -- the longest streak by a Cardinals rookie since Albert Pujols in 2001. Since a scary night in which he fouled a ball off his face June 27, Diaz has posted a 1.030 OPS.
Tillman dominating AL East: BAL@NYY, 1:05 p.m.
Chris Tillman (13-2) is the fifth Orioles pitcher to win 13 of his first 15 decisions in a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and his success against division foes during his hot streak cannot be overlooked. Tillman is 6-0 -- and has helped the Orioles go 9-0 overall -- in his starts against AL East opponents this year, despite a rather pedestrian 3.48 ERA in those contests. Despite going winless against in two looks at Tillman, the Yankees as a team have put together a respectable .852 OPS against him so far this season.
After dropping two of three against this Boston to start the second half, the Bronx Bombers are now one win away from a four-game sweep of the AL East leaders as they try to quiet the chatter about their potential as sellers at the end of this month. New York (48-46) is two games above .500 for the first time since April 12, when they were 4-2, and have not allowed an Orioles run after the seventh inning so far in this series.
Stat that matters: After a franchise-record 23 straight games in which they failed to score a first-inning run, the Yankees finally broke through Wednesday on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Beltran in the opening frame. On the season, however, New York has scored just 33 first-inning runs -- the second-lowest total in baseball.
The Yanks should have a decent chance to turn that around against Tillman, who's allowed a .286 batting average to opponents in first innings -- the highest of any frame in which he's completed an entire inning this year.
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Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.