The Washington Nationals needed something.

Some sort of a boost, a spark, whatever, but it had to be the kind of performance that kick-started their stalling, sputtering second half. Because as things stood going into Saturday night, Washington was a flailing club in danger of falling out of arm’s reach of the rival, first-place New York Mets.

While desperation might be a strong word, the Nationals should have felt something similar, despite what a misguided Jayson Werth said this week about the National League East being their division to lose.

Stephen Strasburg was what they needed to quell whatever discouraging recent history they created for themselves. Upon his return from a second prolonged disabled-list hiatus Saturday, the right-hander delivered what other similar recent returns by Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Werth had not.

Aside from a blemish or two, Strasburg was mostly brilliant, dazzling and energizing at home in his seven innings pitched against the Colorado Rockies, and Washington won, 6-1, behind the 27-year-old’s three hits allowed and 12 strikeouts.

It was the 17th time in 123 career starts he reached double-digit strikeouts and the sixth time he did so without issuing a walk. It was the first time since May 12 that his ERA dipped below 5.00.

He retired the last 11 batters he faced and even went 3-for-3 with the bat. The Nationals shared Strasburg’s stat line:

Strasburg’s fastball reached 97 mph at times. He located it well and used the threat of it to effectively dash in a quality curveball and the occasional slider and changeup. It was the kind of outing that reminds us why Washington took him as the first overall pick in 2009 and why the club still believes he can be one of the game’s legitimate aces.

Going into Strasburg’s return, the Nationals were 7-13 in their last 20 games. That stretch included being swept by the Mets—the reason they now trail them by 1.5 games in the NL East and are four games out of the second wild-card spot with the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants ahead of them.

Those 20 games have also seen Rendon, Zimmerman and Werth come off the DL, yet the team still has a losing record since their return.

And the vaunted pitching staff the team was supposed to have this season had a 4.19 ERA in those games as it has been anything but historically dominant over the entire summer.

That is why Strasburg, healthy and good, means so much to Washington over the final 52 games, of which he is on track to start 10.

“He’s got to be a critical piece,” former major league pitcher and current ESPN analyst Dallas Braden said on the network. “This is a team that is finding themselves going in the opposite direction than we all thought they would be at this point in the year. To get a healthy Stephen Strasburg back, we know what he can do. He’s only going to add punch to that rotation, and they’re going to need him.”

Strasburg looked like he did Saturday after his first DL trip back in June. After recovering from a trapezius strain, Strasburg made two healthy starts. He threw 12 innings, allowed two runs and struck out 15 while walking two. His average fastball velocity in those outings was 96.6 mph, according to the team’s MASN broadcast. It normally sits at 95.2 mph for the season, according to Baseball Info Solutions (h/t FanGraphs).

But in his third start back, Strasburg strained his oblique.

It is now five weeks later, but the Nationals have lost 5.5 games in the standings within that time. In the second half, the rotation has a 3.87 ERA, a pedestrian seventh in the NL. Part of the reason for that is ace Max Scherzer is no longer carrying the other four starting pitchers.

In his four second-half starts, he has a 3.38 ERA through 24 innings, and while he is averaging six innings in those outings, it is far from the 7.1 innings he averaged over his 18 first-half turns.

Doug Fister, who was arguably the team’s best pitcher down the stretch last season and into October, has a 4.60 ERA this season. And in his eight starts since returning from the DL this season, his ERA is 4.86. Strasburg’s return boots Fister to the bullpen, and that alone should help the rotation’s bottom line.

For now, Strasburg has to combine with Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Joe Ross and Gio Gonzalez to propel Washington back into playoff position.

“We’re happy to have Strasy back in the rotation,” manager Matt Williams told reporters Friday. “He’s feeling good. He’s got the ability to go out there and shut anybody down on any given day. We’ll hope for that, prepare and see if we can get them.”

Strasburg has a couple of handfuls of starts remaining to help the Nationals do so.


All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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