WASHINGTON (AP) - Stephen Strasburg returned to dominant, strike-throwing form against St. Louis after struggling in his last start. According to his manager, the All-Star ace will have two more opportunities at being "vintage Strasburg" this season.
Strasburg allowed two hits over six scoreless innings, striking out nine before being pulled Sunday as the Washington Nationals beat the Cardinals 4-3.
The NL East-leading Nationals took three of four from St. Louis and passed their 80-win total from last season.
Strasburg, rocked for seven runs last Tuesday at Miami, left with a 2-0 lead and a 2.94 ERA. He threw 97 pitches and wound up with a no-decision.
"I think he had another inning in his tank, but I didn't want to run it up, maybe cost him a start," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He was outstanding. ... He was vintage Strasburg today."
The 23-year-old Strasburg has struck out a league-leading 195 in 156 1-3 innings this season. The Nationals have repeatedly stated they intend on shutting him down in his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.
Johnson stuck with the party line after the win while providing a firmer timeline than the club has to date.
"I think two starts, unless I let him pitch 10 (innings) in the next one out, which I'm not going to do," Johnson said. "I think his last start will be on the 12th."
The Nationals play at the New York Mets on Sept. 12, not that Strasburg is thinking that far in advance. He is scheduled to face Miami at home on Sept. 7
"I'm just focused on the next start," Strasburg said. "We're going to have a sit down and talk here soon."
The Nationals have been vague about an innings limit, but the team sat Jordan Zimmermann at 161 1-3 innings last season in a similar situation.
"When we feel that he's had enough in and around that area of innings, and we take into account all the things we've talked about taking into account, stressful innings, pitches, and that type of thing, then we'll make that decision and shut him down," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, acknowledging he has yet to have that sit down with Strasburg.
"I don't think he's going to fight me on it, I think he's going to be unhappy about it, I know he'll be unhappy about it. He is an ultimate competitor, but we've taken that out of his hands," he said. "We've made (a decision) five months ago and we're going to stick to it."
For his part Strasburg added, "I'm in with these guys. We still have a long way to go. I'm going to fight with them to the end."
Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa produced two-out RBI singles in the seventh that lifted Washington. Kurt Suzuki homered and drove in two runs for the Nationals.
The Cardinals rallied in the seventh after Strasburg left with three hits against reliever Sean Burnett, including Daniel Descalso's two-run homer.
Washington responded with four consecutive two-out singles against Lance Lynn (13-6). Desmond's flare to center scored pinch-runner Eury Perez with the go-ahead run. Espinosa had three of the Nationals' 13 hits.
Ryan Mattheus (2-3) pitched 1 1-3 innings, allowing a run on Tony Cruz's RBI double in the eighth. Tyler Clippard, the worked the ninth for his 29th save.
Lynn pitched one inning, allowing two runs on four hits for the Cardinals, who have lost five of six while trying to hold off Pittsburgh for the final NL wild-card berth.
Facing the Cardinals for the first time, Strasburg gave up Matt Holliday's two-out double in the first. The All-Star ace held St. Louis without another hit until Holliday's sixth-inning single.
"I just settled in a little bit," Strasburg said. "That's just getting out there, feeling your way through the first couple of innings. When you've got your pitches working, it's just attack."
Attack he did, fanning at least two hitters in four innings and regained the NL strikeout lead by whiffing St. Louis pitcher Jake Westbrook in the fifth. Strasburg walked one overall.
"Strasburg did a great job of holding us down," said Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay, twice a strikeout victim in three at-bats against Strasburg. "He had a good fastball and changeup. He kept us off-balance."
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's throwing error, a walk and a wild pitch put runners on the corners with one out in the fourth. Holliday attempted to score the game's first run on Bryan Anderson's shallow fly ball to right, but Bryce Harper easily threw him out at the plate for the final out.