It looked like that stuff might continue for a moment when Strasburg was getting ready to throw the game's first pitch. Home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson walked out to the mound, and Strasburg thought he was going to be searched. But Nelson just wanted to look at the ball since catcher Jesus Flores had bounced a warmup throw, something that made Johnson and the Washington bench laugh a little.
Strasburg (9-1) then proceeded to give the struggling Nationals (39-27) just what they needed -- a solid effort from their top pitcher. He gave up two runs on five hits, struck out the 10 batters and walked only two. The Rays (38-30) did hit him at times, but Strasburg settled in to win his sixth consecutive start.
"He seemed to get stronger as the game went on," Johnson said. "Great seven innings. He's a true No. 1, and he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."
Strasburg gave up two runs on three hits in the first three innings but only two hits over four scoreless frames before exiting on a steamy night in the nation's capital. The game-time temperature was 94 degrees with humidity, but Strasburg truly did improve later, retiring 10 of the final 12 batters he faced.
He ended his night striking out Desmond Jennings on a blistering 98-mph fastball that closed the top of the seventh.
"I think I was able to keep pretty good composure out there and keep things simple," Strasburg said. "That's what enabled me to go out there and pitch well. It was a great win for us."
Strasburg got by with a little help from his friends, specifically left fielder Steve Lombardozzi, who raced in to make a diving catch on a Jose Molina fly ball with two outs in the sixth. Elliot Johnson had doubled right before that and would have scored the game-tying run if Lombardozzi hadn't made the play.
"I took one or two steps back on it at first, misjudged it, but I sprinted in and was able to catch it," Lombardozzi said. "I was just hauling my butt in and was able to come up with the catch."
Plays like that were even bigger because the Nationals couldn't do much against Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer. The right-hander was making his Major League debut and gave up three runs on three hits in a first inning during which he appeared a bit nervous.
But Archer (0-1) settled down and didn't give up another hit in his final five innings. In fact, Washington got just one baserunner after the first. Bryce Harper walked to lead off the third, was erased when Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play, and the Nationals went down in order the rest of the way thanks to Archer, Burke Badenhop and yes, Peralta, who got some big-time booing when coming on to pitch with one out in the eighth.
The Nationals finished with just those three first-inning hits. But that was enough. Lombardozzi doubled to start the game and then scored on Harper's RBI single for a quick 1-0 lead.
Harper went to second on the throw and tried to go to third when Zimmerman grounded to Johnson at short. But Johnson made a wide throw, and the ball slowly rolled into the Tampa Bay dugout -- with Washington third-base coach Bo Porter alertly hopping out of the way. That let Harper score and Zimmerman move to second.
Zimmerman then raced to third on a wild pitch and later scored on an Ian Desmond single for the 3-0 lead. However, the Nationals didn't get another hit and Tampa Bay tried to chip away. Molina hit a solo homer in the second, and Hideki Matsui added an RBI single in the third before Strasburg shut them down.
Sean Burnett took over for Strasburg and threw a scoreless eighth, and Tyler Clippard closed it out for his 10th save. But the big story again was Strasburg and how he did what a No. 1 pitcher should do -- stop a losing streak.
"He's got great stuff," Rays third baseman Sean Rodriguez said. "He's got command of everything he throws. And pretty much he can throw any of his three pitches in any count. It's impressive."