With his impending shutdown drawing near, Stephen Strasburg's first appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals will likely be one of his last of the season.
Strasburg tries to rebound from one of the ugliest outings of his career Sunday as the Washington Nationals conclude a four-game set with the visiting Cardinals.
While many have questioned Washington's decision to shut Strasburg (15-6, 3.05 ERA) down with the club on the verge of its first playoff berth since 1981 when the franchise was located in Montreal, the NL East-leading Nationals (80-52) don't want to take any chances with their 24-year-old ace.
Strasburg, who's thrown 150 1-3 innings in his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery during his 2010 rookie campaign, will probably make two or three more starts according to manager Davey Johnson.
"I'm the one that puts his name on the lineup card," Johnson said. "And it ain't happening after the innings limit."
Strasburg had compiled a 1.50 ERA in winning four consecutive outings before getting knocked around Tuesday in a 9-0 loss at Miami. The hard-throwing right-hander gave up a career-high seven runs - five earned - and nine hits over five innings.
"I'm sure there's not a pitcher in the history of baseball who has gone out there and done it every single time," said Strasburg, who leads the NL with 11.14 strikeouts per nine innings. "I struggled for pretty much the whole game. It's a learning experience for me."
A repeat performance from Strasburg, though, seems unlikely given his dominance during day games. He's gone 9-2 over 13 such starts while compiling a 2.19 ERA - almost two runs lower than his 3.89 mark at night.
Strasburg will be facing a Cardinals team that finally found its offense Saturday after being outscored 32-1 during a four-game losing streak. David Freese belted a two-run homer in the second inning then hit a go-ahead single in the ninth, helping St. Louis (72-61) to a 10-9 victory.
''It felt like a playoff game,'' said Freese, whose single off Drew Storen plated Allen Craig with the decisive run. ''The atmosphere, the team we are playing against. They have 80 wins for a reason. We are battling. You are going to trade punches when you got two teams going at it. Today was fun.''
The Cardinals now give the ball to Jake Westbrook (13-10, 3.94), who had gone 8-3 with a 2.84 ERA over 12 starts from June 14-Aug. 17 before getting hit hard in each of his last two. The veteran right-hander allowed five runs in as many innings but earned the victory during a 13-5 win over Houston on Aug. 23, then surrendered a season-worst seven runs, 11 hits and four walks in five innings Tuesday during a 9-0 loss at Pittsburgh.
"I haven't been very good the last couple outings and I can't ask the offense to pick me up that big like they did last start," he said. "It's just a matter of figuring it out."
Westbrook was also tagged for seven runs during an 8-6 loss to Washington on April 20, 2011, lasting three innings in his only matchup in this series since joining St. Louis in 2010.
While Ryan Zimmerman is 0 for 6 lifetime versus Westbrook, Jayson Werth is 4 for 4 with a homer. Kurt Suzuki has also taken Westbrook deep, going 3 for 6 overall.
St. Louis activated Lance Berkman (right knee inflammation) from the 15-day disabled list Saturday, but the six-time All-Star didn't play. He's expected to initially be used in a pinch-hit role.