"There's been three or four times where in the first inning he's been up in the 30s in pitches, which is kind of a little agonizing for everybody because we want him to be able to go six or seven innings," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "But he really regrouped and became a very tough challenge for the Marlins tonight. They had some great at-bats against him in the first couple of innings, and as Stephen has done before, he just got tougher and tougher as the game went along."
Strasburg and Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco were locked in a scoreless pitchers' duel through the first five innings before the Nationals erupted for four runs in the top of the sixth.
Nyjer Morgan jump-started the Nats' sixth-inning rally with a leadoff single. Cristian Guzman followed with a single, then a one-out walk to cleanup hitter Adam Dunn -- who had singled in his first two at-bats -- loaded the bases for Willingham, who was a 17th-round selection of the Marlins in the 2000 Draft. Willingham advanced to third on the throw to the plate trying to cut down Dunn, and he scored on a long sacrifice fly by Ivan Rodriguez to give the Nationals a 4-0 lead.
It was the first time in Strasburg's eight starts that the right-hander had pitched with a four-run lead, and the Nationals' bullpen made sure it held up, shutting down the Marlins for the final three innings.
Strasburg went six innings, allowing four hits. He registered seven strikeouts and issued three walks before exiting the game after throwing 99 pitches, 63 for strikes. Drew Storen pitched two scoreless innings of relief, and Matt Capps closed out the win in the ninth.
"Every now and then, it comes up a couple times a year, a four-run lead, you put your closer in," Riggleman said of his decision to bring on Capps, who picked up the win in Tuesday night's All-Star Game. "He didn't throw much before the break, he threw to only one hitter Tuesday, so there was no reason he couldn't pitch in a four-run game tonight."
Strasburg said the All-Star break somewhat disrupted his normal routine, which might explain his struggles in the first two innings, when the Marlins had runners in scoring position in each frame but did not score.
"When you have a week off, sometimes it takes a little while to get back and rolling into that rhythm," Strasburg said. "Luckily enough, I hung in there long enough to get it back without too much damage. Willingham came up with a big clutch hit, and all of our pitchers came in and shut them down."
Strasburg settled down considerably after the second inning. He allowed only one hit his final four innings on the mound and lowered his ERA to 2.03.
"I don't think he's flipping a switch," Riggleman said of Strasburg's struggles in the early innings. "He's extremely intense from pitch one. His stuff is good enough that he can pitch out of trouble. For whatever reason, the first inning, he's thrown a number of pitches that are just off the plate. He's had about three starts like that now, and he's shown enough poise to get through it and enough talent with his repertoire of pitches to get through it."
The Marlins had only one runner in scoring position after the second inning.
"He's just a talented kid," Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla said of Strasburg. "He's got great physical ability. What's so impressive about him is his mental makeup. He knows how to pitch. He commands all his pitches."
Strasburg said there's still a learning curve for him, but he seems to be learning fast.
"You're not going to feel perfect every single time," he said. "What separates the really good pitchers from the average ones is their ability to figure it out on the fly and make those adjustments without giving up too many runs, and we did that tonight."
The win was the Nationals' first shutout since April 25, when they beat the Dodgers, 1-0. The win also snapped a three-game losing streak for the Nationals, who will start right-hander Livan Hernandez against Marlins ace Josh Johnson in the second game of the three-game series Saturday night.