Toward the end of last season, Stephen Strasburg and some of the team’s fan base pleaded with the Washington Nationals organization to put the ball in the pitcher’s hands rather than shut him down early as a preventative measure following Tommy John elbow surgery.
Now with those health concerns behind them and expectations stacked high before them, Strasburg appears to have gained the trust of his coaches. But even with the ball in his right hand, the 24-year-old hasn’t had the same control over the scoreboard as the Nationals have struggled to provide run support.
In Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Arizona, Strasburg pitched seven innings and threw 113 times, marking his first 100-plus pitch outing since May 26. But as he struck out four batters and scattered six hits, Washington’s offense couldn’t capitalize, stranding eight runners on base and going 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
“Stras pitched a good ball game,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “We just kind of sputtered on scoring runs. … Too many good hitters in the lineup that are just not…”
Johnson’s voice trailed off, affirming the inexplicable inability of a team to back up its pitcher after proving so potent offensively last season (4.5 runs per game). Entering Thursday’s game, Strasburg was ranked last in the MLB in run support with just 2.7 runs per start. That minimal production continued in the loss on a night when Strasburg said he felt “really good.”
“I think it’s making me a better pitcher. I’ve learned a lot already,” Strasburg said of pitching with little run support. “I think the one thing I’ve learned is you can’t go out and try to do too much, you can’t go out there and try to pitch to the scoreboard. Once you do that, you’re done.”
Strasburg showed that in the bottom of the seventh. After hanging a ball over the plate in the sixth that Aaron Hill smacked over the wall to tie the game at 2, Strasburg displayed his mettle in the seventh by inducing two groundouts and notching his fourth strikeout.
“I could see I’ve learned a lot just looking back to where I was at last year,” Strasburg said. “I feel like I’ve had a little more freedom to go deeper in ballgames this year and that’s when you really learn; those crunch-time situations.”
Injuries have played a role, what with left fielder Bryce Harper still on a rehab stint in the minors, right fielder Jayson Werth hampered by a groin strain and catcher Wilson Ramos out since May 16 (Both Harper and Ramos are expected back next week). And the Nationals have shown signs of life, such as 34 hits in the three games prior to Thursday’s loss. But as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman pointed out earlier this week, there’s no room for excuses with the season nearing its midway point and their record back at .500.
“I wish we were going to score seven runs every game, but there are good pitchers in this league, too and over the past week or week and a half, we started to feel a little bit better and just got to keep growing with that,” Zimmerman said. “[Strasburg’s] still got a lot to learn and a lot to adjust to as far as little things. Obviously, he’s a great pitcher, but it’s scary to think he’s not even close to what he could be.”
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Harriburg 11, Bowie 6: Robert Gilliam started and allowed two runs on six hits and walked four batters over 3 2/3 innings. Jerad Head went 4 for 6 with four RBI. Justin Bloxom went 3 for 4 with two doubles and three RBI. On rehab, Bryce Harper went 2 for 4 with two RBI. And Jason Martinson, recently promoted, went 2 for 4 and drove in two runs.
Hagerstown 5, Lexington 4: Pedro Encarnacion starter and allowed three runs on six hits over six innings. Brandon Miller went 1 for 4 with two RBI. Shawn Pleffner and Narcisio Mesa each knocked two hits.