The Washington Nationals defeated the Houston Astros by a 7-2 final on Tuesday in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series. And while this game featured its fair share of highlights and controversy, one of the enduring takeaways -- independent of what happens in Game 7 -- will be the stellar performance of Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg.
Although Strasburg came up just short in recording the first World Series complete game since Johnny Cueto in 2015, he did throw 8 and 1/3 innings and held the Astros to two runs on five hits and a pair of walks. Strasburg struck out seven batters and threw 104 pitches before Nationals left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle came in to record the final two outs of the night.
Strasburg had an inauspicious start to his evening. He allowed the Astros to score a run just two batters in and then on his 12th pitch of the night Alex Bregman gave Houston the lead with a home run. But from there, Strasburg was locked in -- and, perhaps on a related note, adjusted his delivery on advice from pitching coach Paul Menhart so that the Astros would not be able to pick up on his pitches. (Strasburg has battled pitch-tipping issues in the past and has blamed that on his large hands.)
"I started shaking my glove so they didn't know what I was throwing," Strasburg said in a postgame interview. "Obviously, they look for certain things and I just thank Menhart for giving me the tip."
He later added: "Paul, our pitching coach, just came up to me. That's something that over the year you kind of be more paranoid about it. Sometimes you do it, sometimes you don't. Just decided to switch it up a little bit and it seemed to work to my advantage."
There was another adjustment in Strasburg's approach on Tuesday night, too. He threw 45 fastballs and averaged 94 mph on them, but his most important secondary weapon was his curveball rather than his changeup. Though five of his nine swinging strikes came on his change, it was the curveball he went to in order to start 14 of his 32 at-bats. And it was the curveball he threw on 13 of his 24 two-strike offerings. Overall, Strasburg threw 40.4 percent curves in Game 6, as opposed to 23.6 percent in Game 2.
In some respect, it's fitting that Strasburg relied so heavily on that pitch in what's presumed to be his final masterpiece of the year. He set a new career-high in curveball usage during the regular season, delivering the pitch more than 30 percent of the time. What's more is that during the regular season, he used it 40-plus times in five separate outings. Entering the 2019 season, he'd never crossed that threshold, according to data from Statcast.
"Obviously facing one of the best hitters in the game. Excited for the challenge," Strasburg said about the at-bat following Game 6. "You prepare yourself for situations like that to come up. You don't expect it to be easy out there. You just take it one pitch at a time and I was to get him to chase a breaking ball."
How effective was the curveball? Eight of them went for called strikes while the Astros offered on 13 of the other 34; three resulted in whiffs, three in fouls, and seven in play. The Astros recorded three hits on those, with the average exit velocity being 82.2 mph.
During the regular season, batters posted an average exit velocity on his curveball of 83.2 mph. It was also the offering he called upon twice when he needed just three pitches to strike out Jose Altuve with two runners in scoring position and one out in the fifth inning:
It's always tempting to describe a player's peak performance as vintage. Strasburg on Tuesday night wasn't the Strasburg of old. It was the reimagined, actualized Strasburg who has ascended to the moment and who has looked like the best pitcher in the National League all month long.
To wit, Strasburg entered the evening having appeared in five games this postseason. In those contests, he had accumulated 28 innings and had yielded seven runs (six earned, for a 1.93 ERA) on 25 hits. He had struck out 40 batters and walked two. Won-lost record is largely meaningless in evaluating a pitcher's performance, but with the Game 6 victory Strasburg is now 5-0 in these playoffs. The only other pitchers to record five wins in a single postseason were Randy Johnson in 2001 and Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 -- and they both finished with 5-1 records.
Now, heading into Wednesday, the Nationals will set their sights on achieving a different 5-0 mark -- going 5-0 in elimination games this postseason. If they do, they'll win the World Series -- and Strasburg will be as big of a reason for that as anyone else on the roster.