WASHINGTON (AP) — Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg showed he is ready for the postseason.
He had another strong performance in Washington’s 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night.
The NL East champion Nationals are set to host the Chicago Cubs next Friday in the NL Division Series after winning their fourth division title in six years. Washington manager Dusty Baker hasn’t yet tipped his hand on a Game 1 starter, but Strasburg made an emphatic case with another stellar effort.
“I feel strong,” Strasburg said. “That’s all you can do. Hopefully there’s another month of baseball to play.”
Strasburg gave up two hits and two walks while striking out eight. He’s 5-1 with a 0.84 ERA since returning from the disabled list on Aug. 19. Strasburg (15-4) retired the first 14 batters before Gregory Polanco’s hard smash bounced off a diving Ryan Zimmerman at first base for the Pirates’ first hit.
“This compares to some of the great runs that I’ve seen,” Baker said of Strasburg’s eight starts since returning from the DL for an impinged nerve in his right arm.
Zimmerman homered twice. His multi-homer game was the 23rd of his career and seventh this season. He was 4-for-4 with two doubles and has reached 36 homers for the first time in his career. Zimmerman has 107 RBIs — three short of his career best. He had a two-run homer in the sixth and then a solo shot in the eighth.
But it was Strasburg’s night with 7 2/3 shutout innings.
“He’s a craftsman,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
The only real trouble Strasburg faced was in the eighth inning when he departed with two outs and runners at first and second, but Nationals reliever Oliver Perez recorded the final out.
Gerrit Cole (12-12) kept Pittsburgh close for a while with seven strikeouts and a walk. Andrew McCutchen drove in the Pirates lone run with a double in the top of the ninth off Nationals reliever Matt Grace.
Washington has made the postseason three times previously, but Strasburg was only available to pitch in 2014.
In 2012 he was shut down in September due to a post-Tommy John surgery innings limit and in 2016 a strained flexor mass in his right arm kept Strasburg out of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Whether he starts Game 1 or that honor goes to teammate Max Scherzer – both Cy Young Award candidates – the Nationals know they will have their full complement of starting pitchers this time.
“I don’t think there’s any surprise when (Strasburg is) healthy his numbers show that he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Zimmerman said. “It’s exciting to have him healthy and pitching like he is going into next weekend. We haven’t really had him at all when we’ve been going into the playoffs.”
HARPER’S PLAYING TIME STILL LIMITED
Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper won’t play a full game this weekend as he continues to recover from a hyperextended left knee that he sustained on Aug. 12.
Harper returned to the lineup on Tuesday and played two games this week in Philadelphia, not going a full nine innings either time. Washington manager Dusty Baker gave him a day off Thursday against Pittsburgh. Harper was back in the lineup Friday night against the Pirates and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and two double plays in seven innings.
Baker said the 2015 NL MVP will take another day off Saturday and probably won’t play nine innings on Sunday.
Pirates: Pittsburgh SS Jordy Mercer (knee), who has not played since departing after five innings Saturday, was out of the lineup for the fifth consecutive game. Mercer is hitting .255 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs in 145 games.
Nationals: RHP Sean Kelley, who left a Sept. 22 game against the New York Mets with arm pain, isn’t expected to be on the postseason roster, according to manager Dusty Baker. The Nats have not announced an exact diagnosis yet for Kelley, who has twice had Tommy John surgery and pitched in just 33 games this season with a 7.27 ERA.
Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon (8-7, 4.62 ERA) starts on the regular season’s penultimate day as the four-game series continues.
Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.55 ERA) with one final chance to impress Cy Young Award voters when he makes his last regular-season start of 2017. Scherzer has won the award twice — with Detroit in 2013 and Washington in 2016.