Nationals vs. Astros: Stephen Strasburg is less than sparkling, but Washington wins, 8-2


Stephen Strasburg unleashes a pitch in thte third inning at Nationals Park. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
September 11, 2011

When Stephen Strasburg hopped down the Washington Nationals dugout steps after the third inning Sunday afternoon, he had finally tapped the full extent of his powers. He had put his ragged, 31-pitch first inning behind him by making a crucial adjustment. He had plowed through six consecutive Houston Astros. He was rolling.

And then his manager, Davey Johnson, walked up to him and told him he was finished.

“Just three?” Strasburg told Johnson. “I’m just starting to feel good.”

Strasburg pitched well in the Nationals’ 8-2 victory Sunday afternoon before 24,238, his second major league start this year. He allowed one run, struck out four and walked none, allowing three hits, two of which hit infielders’ gloves and all of which were singles. But he did not match his sparkling season debut from five days earlier, because he did not pitch very long.

Johnson pulled Strasburg after three innings, by which point his pitch count had ratcheted to 57, one more than he needed to complete five scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his debut. Johnson had put Strasburg on a 70-pitch limit and did not want to pull him in the middle of an inning or send him back out after the Nationals’ lengthy, four-run third inning.

Strasburg improved in each inning, becoming more efficient and more dominant as the day wore on. But his first inning disallowed him from pitching deeper. He understood why he couldn’t pitch more, and that there will come a time when he does. His competitive nature made it difficult to digest in the moment. The word Johnson used to describe him was “irritated.”

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Strasburg said. “If I wasn’t on a pitch count, it would’ve been nice to go out there and pitch longer in the game. That’s how it’s going to be sometimes. You’re not going to go out there and feel perfect every time.”

After a near-flawless reintroduction Tuesday night, Strasburg experienced the inconsistency that comes with recovery from ligament-replacement surgery. He has recovered physically — “it feels like I never had surgery,” Strasburg said.

But Strasburg has not thrown enough pitches and bullpen sessions this year to build up a reliable feel for his pitches. In his debut, he found it immediately. Sunday, it took him an inning or two to get his release point “to where it’s just on auto-pilot,” he said. He threw 12 balls in his first 28 pitches, then seven in his last 29.

“It’s tough, because you go out there one day and everything’s clicking, and you go out there another day and try to do the same thing and it’s just a little bit off,” Strasburg said. “That’s just because you’ve had limited reps. The more times I get out on the mound and the more times I face hitters, the better it’s going to be.”

The Nationals did not need to worry long about the outcome. Their slumping offense broke out, primarily on the back-to-back-to-back home runs Ian Desmond, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Zimmerman hit to start the third inning. The Nationals had hit three straight home runs only once before, when Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn did it in July 2009 at Houston.

Danny Espinosa snapped an 0-for-15 slump with two doubles, and call-up Chris Marrero went 2 for 2 with a sacrifice fly, giving him five RBI in the past three days and raising his average to .306.

Strasburg stuck to his strategy of throwing his fastball with less power and more command, averaging about 95 mph and topping out at 97. He induced weak contact, much of it in the wrong direction — the Astros hit 15 foul balls. If his two-seam fastball sank down rather than running across the plate, he said, the Astros would have hit groundballs rather than fouling them off.

In his first start, Strasburg threw multiple balls to only three of the 17 hitters he faced and used only one three-ball count. Sunday, the count ran full to the first three hitters he faced.

Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes to six of the 12 hitters he faced, though he managed to regain some command in the second inning. He allowed only a bloop single and struck out one more hitter — catcher Carlos Corporan swinging at another change-up — but still threw 15 pitches. From the stretch, he threw his two-seam fastball consistently at 92 mph, which worried pitching coach Steve McCatty.

Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes to six of the 12 hitters he faced, though he managed to regain some command in the second inning. He allowed only a bloop single and struck out one more hitter — catcher Carlos Corporan swinging at another change-up — but still threw 15 pitches. From the stretch, he threw his two-seam fastball consistently at 92 mph, which worried pitching coach Steve McCatty.

“McCatty was over there like the mother hen that he is having a heart attack, wanting to go out there,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well you know, there’s nothing wrong with 92.’ He had a pretty good change-up and he looked fine. But I think the reason he didn’t throw hard in the second inning was because of the temperature.”

Strasburg recorded a 1-2-3 inning in the third, blowing two straight 96-mph fastballs past Parades for his fourth strikeout, the only whiff that came on a change-up. He threw nine of his 11 pitches in the third for strikes, a sign he had finally recaptured his full command.

But once Strasburg walked off the mound, Tom Gorzelanny started warming up in the bullpen. After the Nationals sent seven men to the plate, call-up outfielder Corey Brown emerged from the dugout and stood on deck to pinch-hit for him. Strasburg’s day had ended.

“He’s got my best interests in mind,” Strasburg said. “I trust him 100 percent. I’m going to go out there until he says I’m done, and today he said I was done in the third.”

As Strasburg spoke to reporters afterward, he enjoyed a ritual he could not experience in the solitude of rehab. For the penultimate road trip of the season, Nationals veterans forced all the rookies to dress up as Smurfs — blue body paint and white tights. All around him, his teammates giggled.

“I think I’m going to be the biggest Smurf anybody’s ever seen,” Strasburg said.

He departed his session with the media and walked out to the dugout, where cans of light blue body paint awaited. He came back into the clubhouse, his face all blue except for the big, white smile.

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