CINCINNATI — If Wednesday night was the biggest test thus far in the fledgling career of Stephen Strasburg, then the most-talked about pitcher in baseball passed.
Not with flying colors necessarily.
Not with an A, as in ace.
But the 22-year-old was plenty good enough to get the W as the suddenly hot-hitting Washington Nationals beat the home-standing Cincinnati Reds 8-5 at Great American Ball Park.
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A sold-out GABP — 37,868 plus 2,338 complimentary straight-A student tickets — it must be added. Wednesday marked just the fourth sellout of the season for the NL Central-contending Reds. It was the first weekday sellout since half-price tickets and $1 hot dogs caused patrons to pack the new stadium by the river in 2006.
It wasn't the home team many of the home folks came to see on this night, however. It was the rookie flamethrower from the nation's capital, the kid with the whiskers on his chin and serious smoke on his fastball.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick entered Wednesday with a 4-2 record, a 2.03 ERA and just 14 walks matched against 68 strikeouts through his 482⁄3 innings of work.
Still, the 6-foot-4 Strasburg had not faced an offense as potent as the Reds, which ranks in the top five in the majors in runs scored, homers and slugging percentage.
Didn't matter. His second, third and fourth pitches to Cincinnati leadoff batter Brandon Phillips each hit 98 mph on the GABP radar gun. His third pitch to the Reds' best hitter, Joey Votto, caused the Cincy first baseman to swing wildly at a pitch in the dirt.
Strasburg's sixth pitch got Votto to fan on a check swing.
That was the first of seven Strasburg strikeouts on the night. He fanned at least one Red through the first five innings. He blew a 99 mph fastball past Jonny Gomes for a swinging third strike in the second. He came back and overpowered Gomes with a 98 mph heater in the fourth.
Miguel Cairo drew the Reds' lone walk off Strasburg. That came in the second inning. After Phillips, the team's best fastball hitter, tripled in the third, Orlando Cabrera followed with a single to give Cincinnati a 1-0 lead.
Trouble was, Washington scored the next seven runs, chasing Cincinnati starter Bronson Arroyo with four runs in the sixth.
Arroyo entered the night as Cincinnati's most consistent veteran starter, with a 10-4 record and a 3.96 ERA. Maybe it was the pressure of pitching against the kid, but Arroyo turned in one of his worst starts of the year, surrendering seven runs in 52⁄3 innings.
It was when Washington built a 7-1 lead that the Nationals' star attraction ran out of gas. Strasburg gave up singles to Votto and Bruce in the bottom of the sixth. Then, with two outs, Cairo stroked a single to left, scoring both runners in front of him, slicing the Washington lead to 7-3, and sending Strasburg to the showers.
Most of the crowd, many of whom were walk-ups, cheered the rookie, but there were a few cantankerous boos mixed in.
Strasburg's pitching line read three runs and seven hits over 52⁄3 innings. He walked one, fanned seven. His 97 pitches were within two of his season high, though he has passed the 90-pitch mark in eight of his nine starts.
The rookie has had just two shorter starts this season — 51⁄3 at Cleveland on June 13, and five innings versus the Mets on July 3 — but that wasn't much consolation for Cincinnati, locked in a NL Central battle with first-place St. Louis.
But this night wasn't so much about the Reds as it was about the Washington pitcher's battle with the radar gun.
And if Strasburg didn't exactly silence the Reds' bats, he kept them in check. Good enough for a passing grade. And a win.