After he finished his start in the Nationals’ 6-5 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday night, Stephen Strasburg trudged into the Nationals’ dugout and talked with pitching coach Steve McCatty and Manager Davey Johnson. He fumed about the results – he allowed the Braves four runs in four innings, yielding five hits, including two homers, and walking two. He knows the results do not matter in spring, but he expects better of himself.
McCatty and Johnson diagnosed Strasburg’s problem. He had started throwing rather than pitching. He let the returning strength in his right elbow fool him into thinking he could throw it past hitters no matter where he located his fastball. Strasburg realized he had let his own extra energy get the best of him.
“My arm feels great, so I’m almost over-throwing because it feels so good,” Strasburg said. “That’s one thing that I have to take a step back and remember what I learned from last year. You have to go out there and pitch. You can’t just throw it by guys.”
Strasburg’s problem Wednesday was crystallized in his at-bat against Dan Uggla in the first inning. In their previous meetings, Uggla had been 5 for 6 against Strasburg. Even when the count ran to 1-2, Strasburg knew Uggla would be looking for one of his fastballs.
“He’s the type of hitter that, he’s going to be geared up for a fastball,” Strasburg said. “And my stubborn self, I wanted to blow it by him.”
Strasburg blistered a 96-mph fastball, “and sure enough,” he said, “he was on it.” Uggla finished his with a bat-twirling finish over his head. He had blasted the ball over the right field fence for a home run.
Strasburg has always prided himself, when talking about his craft, on being able to think way through a game. He often decries the obsession with his velocity and strikeout totals, professing a preference for weak contract early in the count. But, he admitted, he does not always follow his own counsel on the mound. He’s working on it.
“That is immaturity, yes,” Strasburg said. “That’s not what the best pitchers in the game do. That’s something that I’m going to have to learn as time goes on. As I get more experience I’m going to learn how to, when I’m out there in the heat of battle, to not necessarily think ‘Okay, I’m just going to rear back and throw this by him.’ I’m sure you guys know, that’s [Uggla’s] M.O. He hits fastballs.”
While Strasburg wanted to shed some of his stubbornness, he also realizes his legendary competitive streak helps give him the capacity for dominance. He treats hitters with unadulterated disdain. The key is not losing that edge, but rather harnessing it and knowing when to unleash it.
“I’m never going to go out there and not compete,” Strasburg said. “But there’s times to rear back and there’s times to take a little bit off. I think that’s the thing that, with time, I’m going to learn. Obviously, you see it with [Justin] Verlander last year. He wasn’t throwing 100 every pitch. That’s something that I’ve got to remember. The best pitchers in the game don’t go out there and throw, basically.”
Surely, not all of Strasburg’s struggles Wednesday night came from his approach. There are naturally up-and-down games for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, and it will take Strasburg time to regain all of the feel for his fastball location. Johnson has also often expressed the belief that it just takes power pitchers longer to sharpen for the season. Strasburg threw strikes on 44 of his 73 pitches, including only 23 of his final 44.
“He’s trying to get more out of it than he needs to,” Johnson said. “It’s location. It’s not power. He just needs to relax, start hitting his spots. His arm looked good. His stuff looked good. I’m not worried about him. I don’t like to see him amp up, because he’s a pitcher.”
Strasburg allowed that actually lost focus of where he wanted to locate his fastball and, basically, chucked it. In the fourth inning, Strasburg fell behind Jason Heyward, 1-0, and let rip a 96-mph fastball high and over the plate. Heyward belted it over the right field fence. Strasburg learned from the experience, he said, and took it as part of the spring training process.
“I know that’s somewhere down the road that I take a little bit off,” Strasburg said. “I’m going to make that pitch or miss down instead of miss right over the plate.”
Johnson has also said Strasburg can be too hard on himself. Strasburg understood he should not take the results to heart. He had plenty to work on, but he also was not setting up pitchers as he would in the regular season. Still, he felt he should have produced a better final result.
“I think that’s one thing I’m fighting myself with a little bit, because I expect myself every single time to go out there and throw up zeroes,” Strasburg said. “That’s the expectation that I have for myself, but it’s my third outing in spring and I just, I know it’s going to get better. That’s one thing that being a professional and having more experience, you’ve got to remember that it is spring training and the way you’re going to go out there and pitch later on in the year is a lot different than what you’re trying to do right now.”
If Strasburg’s internal expectations have remained high, the external attention has diminished since his first spring training. His starts – heck, his bullpen session – existed as news-making events, even in spring training. He was asked if he senses a difference in that attention now, and if that had any effect.
“I know that in the past when there’s sellout crowds and stuff and there’s just the expectations, I definitely feel like my game goes into another gear,” Strasburg said. “And it’s like that for anybody. It’s different during the year when the games count. A lot of guys, they take it to the next level, and that’s something that’s hard to really simulate in spring training because it’s everybody’s just trying to get their work in.
“Like I said, I’m going out there trying to throw a lot of fastballs, trying to work on the command, build on that. In a regular season game, it’s go out there and compete, and it’s you vs. him and not necessarily, ‘Okay, I need to work on this today.’ ”
As you can perhaps tell from these quotes, Strasburg has been more open and comfortable this spring with reporters. He has always been thoughtful on the topic of pitching, but he seems even more at peace with sharing those thoughts now. Not to get overwrought, but without the massive spotlight of his first season or the drag of rehab, Strasburg appears to be in a very good place. Whether or not that enhances his performance, we’ll see. But you if you care about the person and not the only pitcher, it is already good news.
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