Stephen Strasburg taking improved mental outlook into Braves showdown

In the aftermath of his lowest moment this year, Stephen Strasburg realized he had drifted away from the three-word mantra that turned him into an ace. He had lost control in stressful situations because he tried to control everything. As he considered his meltdown May 11 against the Cubs, which gave the Nationals six losses in his last seven starts, Strasburg turned his focus to one concept: “The Next Pitch.”

“I just try not to go out there and do too much,” Strasburg said. “I try not to let the little things affect me. Just like any guy, you go out there and pitch better when you have a clear head.”

The Nationals tonight will begin a three-game series against the Braves, a hugely important chance to gain ground on their foremost divisional rival. And there is no one they would rather hand the ball to now than Strasburg, who flew from Baltimore to Atlanta last night ahead of the team. Since he renewed his focus, Strasburg is turning into a full-blown ace in real time, before our eyes.

“A lot of things have changed,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Just the way he handles himself on the mound.”

In his last three starts, Strasburg has allowed three earned runs and pitched 23 innings, twice pitching a career-high eight. He won two of them, and would have won all three if the Nationals’ offense and bullpen had not conspired against him last week in San Francisco. He lowered his season ERA to 2.49, 10th in the National League.

He has succeeded by wiping away everything he cannot control. After his first eight starts this year, Strasburg had yielded eight unearned runs. He admitted the problems behind affected him. He said his fastball command has improved, but the factor behind his better location has been his ability rise above adversity. The difference has seemingly come quickly, but Strasburg did not see it that way. He said he has merely reverted to how he competed before.

“I feel like my first couple starts, I was struggling, letting the things that happened out there that were unexpected, I was letting it affect me a little bit,” Strasburg said. “It was affecting the next pitch. I haven’t always been that way. I don’t really feel like it’s been a rapid change. I feel like I’ve gotten back to what makes me successful. That’s just worrying about the next pitch.”

What makes Strasburg successful, essentially, is removing any self-made hurdles that would obscure his soaring ability. Earlier in the year, he would try too hard to overcome a mistake, whether it happened behind him or he allowed a hit. The past three games, he worked to change that.

“I feel like I speed myself up a little bit when something happens,” Strasburg said. “I really try and go out there and try to get the double play or an out on the next pitch. With that, I feel like I have a tendency to try to throw a perfect pitch, when you really shouldn’t change the way you go out there and execute pitches because a guy gets a hit off you.

“I’m sure as the season goes on, you just get more comfortable. I feel like I’m better pitcher and my stuff works a lot better when I just think about going nice and easy. That’s just the way my body is. Whenever I try and muscle it up there or try and throw harder, make the pitch break more, it’s either hanging or not where I want it to be.”

Strasburg has overhauled his body language, seemingly at the flip of a switch. Against the Padres three starts, Ryan Zimmerman made an error and Strasburg famously pointed at him and said, “I got you.” The moment has been perhaps been a little too celebrated, but it really did serve as a turning point.

“We talked about it a long time ago prior to this,” McCatty said. “I’m not going to take credit for it. But it’s something we’ve talked about. He took it upon himself after watching Jordan [Zimmermann], the way he does his business and all that. That’s the way he’s going about it. He’s just growing as a pitcher.”

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 5, Gwinnett 0: Ross Ohlendorf tossed seven shutout innings and struck out 11 batters and walking three. Micah Owings smacked two doubles and finished 3 for 4. Eury Perez went 2 for 4 and hit his second home run. Corey Brown went 1 for 3 with a solo homer, his sixth.

Akron 3, Harrisburg 2 (15): Blake Treinen, acquired in the Michael Morse trade, allowed one run on seven hits over seven innings and struck out three. Ian Krol, also from the same trade, tossed a scoreless eighth and lowered his ERA to 0.70. Steven Souza Jr. went 2 for 7 with two RBI.

Potomac 7, Salem 3: Blake Schwartz allowed three runs on seven hits over 5 2/3 innings. Matt Grace picked up the win with 2 1/3 scoreless innings. On rehab, Jayson Werth went 2 for 3 with an RBI and played six innings in right field. Michael Taylor went 1 for 3 with three RBI.

Lexington 5, Hagerstown 2: Dixon Anderson allowed two runs on five hits over 6 2/3 innings, striking out eight. Khayyan Norfork went 2 for 4 with two RBI. Estarlin Martinez went 2 for 4.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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James Wagner · May 30, 2013