Tuesday afternoon, precisely one month and one day after the men who run the Washington Nationals prohibited him from pitching for the team with the best record in baseball, Stephen Strasburg occupied an increasingly familiar spot on the field. The Nationals’ ace stood in the outfield, playing catch and shagging flies, part of the team but not the roster.
As the Nationals play the postseason without him, Strasburg has softened his stance on the Nationals’ decision to shut him down. He still does not like it, which is why, in the week after his final start, he lobbied the Nationals to let him pitch. They did not, of course, but Strasburg’s anger has since mellowed.
First, consider what he said Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the Nationals concluded an optional team workout at Nationals Park: “I’ve accepted it, and I’m just trying to be here for the team.”
Now, remember what Strasburg said on Sept. 8, hours after Manager Davey Johnson sidled next to him in the trainer’s room and told him his season was over: “I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest.”
How, on the eve of Washington’s first major league playoff game 79 years, did Strasburg arrive at that point? The simple answer is the one month and one day between then and now.
“Time, basically,” Strasburg said. “I’m still pretty upset. I’m kind of past that. It’s done with. There’s nothing you can do. I could sit here and be upset and not be a good teammate, but I don’t want to be that type of guy. I want to pull for these guys and make sure that everybody knows that I’m with them, even though I’m not out there playing.”
Strasburg did not wish to discuss specifically how much he has lobbied the Nationals to pitch. (If it needs to be said, Strasburg will not be making any postseason appearances, period.) But he admitted it had come up in the past, and that he no longer felt the need to push them.
“It’s their call,” Strasburg said. “It’d be pretty reckless to have me get on the mound and get going now after not even getting on the mound for a month. I talked to them about it for the week after that, but they were pretty firm. Now it’s to the point where I don’t think it would be smart for anybody to do that.”
After his second major league season, Strasburg has little apparent room to improve. He went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings. Still, since Strasburg stopped pitching, he has been building arm strength with an offseason throwing program, lifting weights and running. He believes the time off gave him a perspective that can elevate his performance next season.
“I know my fastball command is going to be a lot better next year,” Strasburg said. “Especially this month, just being able to kind of take a step back and watch from the dugout and see how hitters face certain pitchers, I think I’ve developed a little more of a game plan. I just know everything is going to be a lot better next year.”
The Nationals had planned all season to shut down Strasburg, no matter the team’s record, after he threw roughly 160 innings. They worried not so much about the fitness of his right elbow in the aftermath of his September 2010 Tommy John surgery, but the large increase in innings.
They chose to end his season Sept. 8 because on Sept. 7, Strasburg had his second ragged start in three trips to the mound. In his final three starts, Strasburg allowed 12 runs in 14 innings despite throwing six shutout innings against – of all teams – the St. Louis Cardinals. The inconsistency gave the Nationals pause, and even Strasburg came to believe, perhaps, that the innings increase had affected him.
“It’s tough to say,” Strasburg said. “I’m assuming that’s the case. I threw 24 big league innings the year before. I threw close 140 more. I definitely feel like I’m going to be prepared to go over 200 innings next year.”
Strasburg also discovered a flaw he can fix. He believes in some starts, he may have tipped pitches, revealing to the hitter what pitch was coming before he threw it.
“I was tipping pitches some games,” Strasburg said. “Guys take better swings when they know what’s coming. That’s one thing I got to work on, is … making sure that when I’m switching pitches in my hand, that I’m not moving my glove a little bit. I feel like if I do that a little better and disguise it a little bit, they’re not going to have as good of passes on it.”
Wednesday afternoon, Strasburg will sit in the dugout and watch Edwin Jackson, the free agent the Nationals signed to suck up innings he would not throw. It is still hard for him to watch, but he knows it could be him out there one day soon.
“It’s playoff baseball,” Strasburg said. “It’s great for the town, being able to witness the atmosphere of the playoffs. Even though I’m not out there, it’s hopefully good preparation for the opportunities in the future.”