Before Tuesday night, the last time Stephen Strasburg threw 85 pitches in a game came Aug. 15, 2010, the start before he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. And yet, “I definitely could have gone back out there,” Strasburg said after allowing the Mets one run over five grind-it-out innings of the Nationals’ 2-0 loss.
This spring has been so smooth for Strasburg, even with some mildly disappointing statistical results, that you almost forget about the big-picture importance of a healthy right arm. Which he has.
Tuesday night, he got the kind of results he wanted, too. Strasburg had shown flashes of his typical, dominant self throughout spring training, but in his fourth tune-up for the season, Strasburg provided a complete performance. He peppered the bottom of the strike zone with 96-mph fastballs. He induced soft contact. He struck out three in five innings. He allowed just one run, a solo homer that came one pitch after a curveball probably should have been called strike three.
“That was Stras,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He stayed within himself and pitched. That’s what I wanted to see, and I saw it.”
Strasburg had experienced uneven results before tonight, allowing eight earned runs in 9 2 / 3 innings. In five strong innings tonight, he allowed two hits and a walk, throwing 54 of his 85 pitches for strikes.
“I just located the ball a little bit better,” Strasburg said. “I threw some off-speed for strikes. Just another outing.”
Strasburg’s nonchalance represents an important step. In his mind, he is not recovering from Tommy John surgery. He is getting ready for the season.
“He’s so intense,” Johnson said. “He’s his toughest critic. You can’t talk to him during a game. He’s like that brick wall over there. He’s really competitive. I saw what I wanted to see from him. … This is spring training. He takes it like it’s the second game of the World Series. Or the first game. But I was really pleased with the way he threw.”
Johnson had chided Strasburg after each of his starts for overthrowing. Strasburg called himself stubborn and immature as a pitcher for the way he attacked the Braves in his last start, trying to prove he could throw fastballs by hitters rather than thinking his way through at-bats. Against the Mets, he pitched more under control.
“He’s hitting it in the fairway instead of 400 yards in the rough,” Johnson said.
Strasburg’s night included a couple unique moments. He became the first Nationals starter to take an at-bat this spring training. In his first plate appearance, he drilled the first pitch he saw from Dillon Gee to the right side. The line drive just about knocked second baseman Daniel Murphy to the ground. Strasburg had given the Nationals one of their five hits and himself a 1.000 batting average.
“I was guessing first pitch,” Strasburg said, smiling a bit. “It felt pretty good.”
Strasburg’s pitch count was raised by an 11-pitch at-bat against Daniel Murphy. (“You’re out there like, ‘Please, just put this in play,’ ” he said.) Strasburg would have avoided any runs had home late umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called out Lucas Duda on a curveball that appeared to curl into the strike zone. Instead, Duda launched an opposite-field homer with the next pitch. (“I thought he had him struck out with the curveball,” Johnson said.)
His most harrowing moment, though, came on a ball hit back to him. With two outs in the second, Strasburg broke Josh Thole’s bat with an inside fastball. As a comebacker bounced toward the mound, a jagged-edged hunk of Thole’s bat helicoptered toward Strasburg, too. Strasburg calmly fielded the ball, hopped out of harm’s way and got the out.
“I didn’t really, like, flinch or anything for some reason,” Strasburg said. “I was so locked in. I saw the ball first, and I saw the barrel flying. I didn’t really think about getting hit by it. I just picked it up and felt like I was out of the way.”
The play was no small thing. In a previous start this spring, Strasburg’s night spiraled after he could not make a play on a tricky play on a ball hit back to him. With his recovery from surgery, Strasburg did not have the game experience in such situations. Tuesday night, he handled a funky defensive play deftly.
“Bottom line is, I wasn’t going to let the ball get by me,” Strasburg said. “If I got smoked with the bat, it would suck. But I wasn’t going to let the ball get by me.”