Nats rewarded for faith in Strasburg

In the top of the sixth inning Wednesday at Citi Field, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson faced the first of what will likely be many difficult decisions regarding his ace Stephen Strasburg this season.

The New York Mets, whose bats had been held in check for most of the first five innings, had come to life — comparatively speaking, at least — and put runners on first and second with one out and No. 5 hitter Jason Bay at the plate. The Nationals, whose lumber had been held similarly silent by Mets starter Johan Santana, held a slim 1-0 lead.

More importantly, though, Strasburg was sitting at a career-high 102 pitches for the afternoon.

Johnson could have taken Strasburg out. In fact, he probably should have, and normally he would have. After all, the hard-throwing righty — making just his seventh start since undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010 — had never thrown more than 99 pitches in a major league game, a decision that was a matter of design, not coincidence. Johnson never specified what his pre-determined pitch limit is for his young star, but he did refer to “100” as though that is the magic number he won’t allow him to eclipse.

But he didn’t. Instead, Johnson — who compared Strasburg to Dwight Gooden on Tuesday — sent pitching coach Steve McCatty to the mound for a visit, to calm the 23-year-old’s nerves and give him a breather, not take the ball from his hands.

“It’s early in the year, and I generally don’t like when a guy is at the end of his pitch limit for me, for me to put him over it; I’m very conservative in that regard,” Johnson said of his decision to ignore his own pre-determined pitch count and leave Strasburg in.

“But he didn’t win his first game, and I know he wouldn’t have liked to have left runners on that could have given him an L. So I let him go. It’s that simple.”

And over the next six pitches, Strasburg rewarded his manager for his faith. He struck out Bay, his ninth and final strikeout of the afternoon, and coaxed a pop-out out of catcher Josh Thole, neutralizing what turned out to be a minor threat and ending his second start of the year on his terms — and in line for his first win of the season.

“As a starter it’s the worst feeling getting taken out in the middle of an inning and not being able to finish it,” Strasburg said. “I don’t like it, and I bet if you asked any other starter in here, they’d tell you they don’t like it either. You don’t want to go 5 1/3 innings, you want to go six or seven or eight or nine.”

The Nationals bullpen held strong over the final three innings and Strasburg, who allowed just two hits over six innings while walking three, earned his seventh career victory in a 4-0 shutout of the host Mets.

“Bottom line, you want to go out there and do everything you can to give your team a chance,” Strasburg said. “Whether the score’s 1-0 or 9-8, as long as it’s a win, it’s a win. I didn’t want to go out there and give it up, so that’s why I wanted to bear down and focus and get out of the inning. That’s what all the great pitchers in the league do.”

It’s too early to tell whether Strasburg will evolve into an all-time great — after all, he’s only started 19 career games — though utterly dominant performances like Wednesday’s would suggest that he’s got the potential.

That said, if we’ve learned anything about Strasburg, a college phenom at San Diego State who wowed fans and scouts alike with a sizzling fastball that was clocked as high as 103 miles per hour, it’s that nothing is a given.

He was fast-tracked through the minors — he made 11 starts at the AA and AAA levels, a mere formality — and started a grand total of 12 big league games in 2010, compiling a 5-3 record and 2.91 ERA before a torn ulnar collateral ligament and that fateful Tommy John surgery ended his sparkling rookie campaign early.

The procedure and subsequent rehab kept Strasburg out of commission until the final month of 2011, but in five September starts he didn’t appear to have lost a beat. He went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA, allowing just four earned runs and striking out 24 batters in 24 innings pitched — while never throwing more than 79 pitches in a game.

But a true test of Strasburg’s recovery will come this season, when we see what the young hurler can do with a full year in the rotation — and if he can even make it through a full year, unencumbered by injuries, to begin with.

So far, there’s been no inclination that he can’t.

“I want to be that guy, that horse in the rotation that can go out there and hopefully get to the seventh or eighth inning every time,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I’m working toward, and it’s a goal of mine.”

In his first start of 2012, Strasburg picked up where he left off last year, striking out five batters while holding the Cubs to one run on five hits in an efficient seven innings — he threw just 82 pitches — on Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

Wednesday’s masterful performance lowered his ERA to 0.69 through 13 innings of work and gave him 108 reasons to believe it can and will only get better from here.

“To go out there and know that your manager has confidence in you to get through the innings despite your pitch count, that’s huge,” said Strasburg, who said he felt comfortable throwing 100 pitches and that he did it in “pretty much every start” in college.

“By no means was I thinking in the back of my head (today), ‘Oh, how many pitches am I at?’ I wanted to go out there and keep the team in the ballgame as long as I could and stay out there and keep battling until they took the ball out of my hands.”

And his manager, at least Wednesday, wasn’t about to do that.

“There was plenty left in the tank there, and I’d have probably had to strangle him to get a hold of the ball to get it out of his hand,” Johnson said of his uber-competitive ace. “I didn’t want to fight him on the mound.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner