Last night, Stephen Strasburg induced a career-high 20 swings-and-misses from the Red Sox in 119 pitches. Strasburg is liable to produce gaudy figures and ugly swings every time he takes the mound, but he credited the extra effectiveness of his curveball to an unlikely source: outfielder and former elite pitching prospect Rick Ankiel.
Strasburg was uneasy about asking Ankiel for advice, not wanting to overstep his bounds as a 23-year-old reaching out to a 32-year-old veteran, especially one who went through Ankiel’s ordeal. Coaches Rick Eckstein and Trent Jewett encouraged Strasburg to approach him. Ankiel was pleased to help, and his wisdom made a difference.
“I was talking to Ankiel about throwing breaking balls and stuff, and kind of had a little bit of a breakthrough,” Strasburg said. “I’m not going to get too excited, because a lot can happen and a lot can change between the next outing, but it definitely felt a lot better out there tonight.
“I watched him growing up. He had one of the best curveballs in the game, and he knew how to throw it and he knew how to use it to his advantage. It’s something that I have to continue to work on and play with, and I’m just happy that it’s starting to come back.”
Neither Strasburg nor Ankiel wanted to be too specific about the tip, but it involved how to throw the curveball in certain counts, and whether to throw it in the dirt or for a strike.
In 2000, at age 20, Ankiel punched up a 3.50 ERA and struck out 194 batters in 175 innings. He was a lefty, but fundamentally he and Strasburg pitched with a similar style.
“I just look at it as I threw hard, and both of us can get to swing at the curveball that aren’t strikes,” Ankiel said.
“When I’m watching him, I can live vicariously through him, have fun with him in that aspect of it,” he added. “You know, to watch all of our pitchers throw, it’s pretty exciting.”
Ankiel has a unique perspective, having both pitched and hit at an elite level, and he is eager to share what he’s seen. Bryce Harper frequently cites Ankiel as one of the Nationals most willing to share insights and tips. Ankiel can remember his rookie season, when Jim Edmonds, Darryl Kile, Matt Morris and Pat Hentgen counseled him.
“It’s great to give back,” Ankiel said. “Just like when I was a rookie, people gave me advice. You hear it, and sometimes it doesn’t sink in. It might be a month later before you figure out what he was talking about. But it’s nice to give back. It’s part of going through it and part of being in this game.”
The Nationals constructed their bench with their youth in mind. For the second straight year, General Manager Mike Rizzo stocked the dugout with veterans who could guide the Nationals’ rookies and 20-seomthings.
“Sometimes you get these veteran guys where they’re more on the selfish side and they don’t take that role,” bench coach Randy Knorr said. “I think that hurts the club. I think we benefit from that, and that’s probably why we’re winning, because they pick the kids up and they’re not doing well and they get them back in and keep them focused. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys on the bench. They’re outstanding.”
At the end of the day, as Ankiel pointed out, the advice matters less than than the actual performance. Strasburg was dominant as he struck out 13. Even when the Red Sox loaded the bases against him, the Nationals stuck with him through 119 pitches.
“He don’t want to come out of that game,” Knorr said. “He might’ve killed all of us if we brought him out of that game right there. He wants to finish that inning. He don’t want anyone to clean up his stuff out there. And that’s one of the good things about Stephen.”