Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg unleashed two years of pent-up playoff energy -- and got nickel-and-dimed out of the game.
The radar gun showed mostly 97s and 98s in the first inning of his much-anticipated postseason debut. There was even a 99. His fastball had lost a little bit of sizzle this season, but this was more like the rookie who dazzled the majors in 2010.
"It felt a lot like opening day,'' Strasburg said. "I felt pretty strong.''
But the San Francisco Giants had a plan. Make contact. Manufacture a run or two. All eight of their hits against the Washington Nationals ace were singles. Six went to center field. Two came in one inning and, aided by a poor defensive decision and a passed ball, produced a run. Three came in the next inning and produced another run.
The Nationals needed something close to perfection from Strasburg because his San Diego pal Jake Peavy was spinning a masterpiece for the Giants and Washington's bats managed only six hits all game.
Instead, Strasburg was flawed just enough in Friday's 3-2 loss in the opener of the best-of-five NL Division Series.
"I think what we're doing is we're not getting too big up there, we're not trying to do too much,'' said Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, who had one of those up-the-middle hits and later scored after reaching on a fielder's choice. "We're staying within ourselves. We're just doing that old game of getting people on, moving them over, and getting them in.''
Strasburg's final line looked decent enough: five innings, eight hits, two runs (one earned), one walk and two strikeouts. He threw 58 of his 89 pitches for strikes and was pulled after giving up back-to-back hits -- yep, both to center -- to lead off the sixth.
"I was getting groundballs,'' Strasburg said. "I was giving up all singles, so it wasn't like they were hitting me all around the yard. ... It was just one of those days where I felt like I made a pitch and they fought it off and hit it where we weren't.''
The Nationals managed only two hits against Peavy and trailed 3-0 before Bryce Harper put one in the third deck to lead off the seventh against reliever Hunter Strickland. Asdrubal Cabrera followed one out later with a shot off Strickland that landed in the home bullpen.
But that was it. They went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. Ian Desmond had a particularly tough game, going hitless in four at-bats with two strikeouts and leaving six runners on base.
"I didn't put my best foot forward,'' Desmond said. "We've got some games left, and hopefully I'm able to bounce back.''
It won't be easy. The Giants' Game 2 starter Saturday is an old Nationals' nemesis, Tim Hudson. In Game 3, Washington will have to go on the road and deal with Madison Bumgarner, who pitched a shutout in the wild-card game.
"We can't go 0-2 into San Fran,'' Harper said. "That's tough, so we've got to get that `W' tomorrow.''
Strasburg didn't pitch when the Nationals made the playoffs two years ago because he was shut down early, having hit an innings limit in his first full season after elbow surgery. He wasn't happy about it, and fans were left to wonder if the outcome would have been different had he been available for what turned out to be a five-game series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Strasburg went 14-11 this season with a 3.14 ERA and tied for the NL lead in strikeouts with 242, and there was little doubt he would get the Game 1 start vs. San Francisco.
Those savvy Giants, who have two World Series titles in the last four years, weren't fazed a bit.
"Don't try to do too much. Don't overanalyze anything,'' manager Bruce Bochy said. "You start thinking too much against a good pitcher, you get yourself in trouble. We try to keep it simple.''
Strasburg showed some moxie to keep the game close. He threw seven consecutive balls to open the fifth and then hit a batter with an 0-2 pitch, but he got out of the inning by striking out Pablo Sandoval with a 97 mph fastball and getting Pence to pop out to first.
"He gave us a chance,'' Nationals first-year manager Matt Williams said. "Jake was a little bit better.''
Strasburg isn't one to revel in the spotlight and would prefer to be treated as just another pitcher. With his playoff debut out of the way, perhaps the next one will be more normal -- or as close to normal as the postseason can get.
I'm glad I was able to go out there and get my feet wet,'' he said. "And I'm excited for the next opportunity.''
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