In his first start in two weeks because of forearm tightness and cramping, Stephen Strasburg fired 109 pitches over six innings in the Sunday night game of the split doubleheader against the Marlins. He allowed three runs on six hits, while walking two batters and striking out six. When he left after six innings, with the Nationals leading the Marlins, 4-3, his team had a chance to win. But, in Manager Davey Johnson’s assessment, there was much to be desired about Strasburg’s performance.
“He was actually awful,” Johnson said. “And he was. Every pitch he threw was up. He’s got such great stuff but everything was belt-high. I grew to love him when he pitched for me in the Olympics in Beijing [in 2008]. He’s a pitcher. He has command. Everything is right on the knees. Everything tonight, even the curveball was belt-high. Fastball up all night. Not typical Stephen. He had 12 days to pitch but he’s got such good stuff that when he gets the mind-set that all he has to do is make his pitches and locate ‘em doesn’t matter how fast they are or whatever he’s going to be real dominant. That wasn’t vintage Strasburg tonight to me.”
Strasburg last started on Sept. 8 in Miami but was scratched from his past two starts because of muscular discomfort in his forearm that he described as a strong cramp. He was set to return on Saturday night, but the game was postponed after a 3:46 rain delay to Sunday as part of the doubleheader, yet another Strasburg start affected by rain. “Stranger things are going to happen throughout my career,” he said. “It’s good to roll with it and go out there and do your job.”
Johnson said he believes Strasburg is past the forearm discomfort, but Strasburg said “it doesn’t really matter” when asked about it following the game. “I just wanted to go out there and give everything I had and hopefully keep it close and today we were able to get a win,” Strasburg said. Johnson said Strasburg will make his next start, which would fall on Friday in Arizona.
Strasburg’s command was shakier than normal and his pitches were often up in the strike zone, expected rust to dust off after throwing only 12 innings this month entering Sunday. Justin Ruggiano’s second-inning solo home run came on a Strasburg fastball left over the heart of the plate. The Nationals were in a 1-0 hole in the first inning when Donovan Solano smacked a high fastball for a leadoff double off Strasburg and then scored on two groundouts. Strasburg kept reminding himself not to get frustrated.
“You’re probably not going to have a good feel of your pitches and try to be as effectively wild as you can,” he said. “… I think my change-up got better as the game went on and I spiked it a little bit early. Curveball was pretty good from the start. Fastball command was kinda hit and miss.”
Johnson wanted get Strasburg’s win-loss record to .500 and he hit the 100-pitch mark in the same inning, the sixth and his final one, that the Nationals’ took a 4-3 lead. Strasburg’s ERA sits at 3.02 over a career-high 29 starts, but Sunday’s no-decision keeps his unusual record at 7-9. Strasburg is scheduled to make one more start, bringing his season total to 30, only two more starts than his innings-limited 2012 season. He has dealt with injuries this season, questions about his mental toughness and oddities on the field. At 25, he is still learning how to refine his craft and sees room for tweaks.
“For me, I think there’s a lot of things I learned this year and a lot of improvements to be made,” he said. “And I’m going to work harder than I did that last offseason. That’s all you can really do. You really can’t focus on the results necessarily because there’s going to be some times where some teams have everything go their way for an entire year and I feel like we’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity this year.”
As for the Nationals’ season as a whole, Strasburg tries to focus on the final months of success.
“You ask anyone in here, I think we beat ourselves way too many times this year,” he said. “There’s no doubt we ability we have the ability to get to the playoffs and go deep in the playoffs. Just for one reason or another we weren’t able to stay consistent. I think it’s huge for us to finish strong like we have in September here and much like the year before last carry that into spring training and get back on it.”