Protecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper is a tough balance for the Nationals


Stephen Strasburg allowed one run and struck out nine in eight innings as the Nationals beat the Phillies on Sunday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Nationals often feel like a baseball lab experiment in which the care, feeding and development of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are constantly on display and invariably vital. What brings out their best? What constitutes abusing or risking their talent — especially since the pain-threshold factors for pitchers and rugged everyday players are so widely different?

Because both are hardheaded, driven and confident, how do you reach them with advice without insulting them or losing their respect? What is age-appropriate behavior in a young star? Who says, “That’s enough?”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

On Sunday at Nats Park, Strasburg showed fresh progress in mastering mound demeanor and mustering grittiness, dominating the Phillies in a 6-1 win over southpaw Cole Hamels that was scoreless until a five-run Nats seventh. A string of nine strikeouts in 13 batters was as impressive as any pitching in his career and probably more efficient.

Just four starts ago he imploded after a teammate’s error and was taken to the woodshed by everyone except the ushers. When would he stop being distracted by trifles? When would he get through the first inning smoothly? Could he blend great stuff with economical pitch counts? His response: learn.

Against the Phils, he executed one of baseball’s simple lessons: Fastball command fixes everything. Get ahead then change speeds. Of his 112 pitches in eight innings, 76 were strikes. At one point, he got 15 outs on 15 hitters, and he had a double and single off Hamels.

Meanwhile, Harper played out the next act in his Wall Crash Aftermath drama. Determined to do anything to help beat his nemesis Hamels, the pitcher who drilled Harper on purpose last year, the 20-year-old twice tweaked his swollen left knee with head-first slides, once on a steal of third base. Then he even fouled a ball off the same painful knee.

By the seventh, still playing despite a 5-0 Nats lead, he looked like Kirk Gibson in the ’88 World Series, limping just to stay in the batter’s box. His labored trips to right field looked slightly (which is too much) like RGIII. He was finally removed for a pinch runner to relieved applause from 39,033.

Is Harper so tough, repeatedly talking his way back into the lineup since he ran into the Dodger Stadium scoreboard face-first full-speed 13 days earlier, that somebody should throw a halter around his thoroughbred neck?

Manager Davey Johnson, who abets Harper in his natural inclination to deny the existence of pain, now says Harper “will probably be down a few days.” That would mark the third time Harper’s wall comeback has proved to be premature and turned instead into more missed games.

“I probably won’t get better until the offseason,” said Harper, who added he could “take four days off,” feel better but be back to square one with any hard slide or diving catch. “I just have to deal with the pain . . . try to keep in there every day and see what happens.”

See what happens? That fingers-crossed strategy has failed three times.

“I’ve had the same knee swelling as far back as when I was a catcher in the minors,” said Jayson Werth, currently on the disabled list, who is a Harper mentor. “It’s painful, but it’s playable. But it definitely hurts. When you bang it, it just hurts more. Those things suck. Pain is a tough thing. We’re all mortal. Except [Cal] Ripken Jr. How did he do that, anyway?”

Harper’s knee will remain an ongoing aggravation, but Strasburg probably has turned a corner in his season. If so, his roll could synchronize with Jordan Zimmermann, who is tied for the major league lead in wins, and Gio Gonzalez, who takes a 1.67 ERA in May into his outing against the Orioles on Memorial Day.

Since his 14-strikeout major league debut, the Nats themselves have watched for the emergence of Strasburg as more than a workaholic phenomenon with diva perfectionist tendencies. Would he actually become the true workhorse ace he’s always said he wants to be?

“His last two games are probably the best we’ve seen him since he’s been in the big leagues,” said Ian Desmond, who has played behind Strasburg his entire career. “Early in his career, the K’s were great. But you [may] only last six innings doing that. . . . He’s learning. He’s always gotten better.

“We’d rather see him throw all fastballs if it takes him deeper in the game,” Desmond said of Strasburg, who had never set foot on the mound in the eighth inning until May 16 but has now gone eight, seven and eight innings in three starts. “Him out there in the eighth, that’s what we want.”

“He’s getting there,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He knows what he’s capable of, sometimes to a fault.”

Strasburg feels that, with no pitch limit this season, he’s gone back to his college pitching tendencies — early-inning speed when he battles “hit-or-miss command,” followed by smoother mechanics as the game progresses.

“Then I get rolling. . . . I just let it eat,” Strasburg said. “Once I see the finish line, it jumps back up.”

In the seventh, Strasburg fanned the side with seven curves, six fastballs and five change-ups. It wasn’t fair.

Strasburg also has followed the advice of millions, including pitching coach Steve McCatty, to get ahead in counts.

“Everything comes off fastball command. . . . That’s what’s improved,” Strasburg said. “I have a lot more confidence when I throw strike one,” he said. “It’s hard to go curve or change if you’re behind.”

The Nats now begin one of the most fascinating series in their nine seasons in Washington — two games in Nats Park, then two in Camden Yards, against the Orioles. Both reached the playoffs last year. Both are reeling from problems this spring. The Nats, 26-24, were five games behind the Braves entering Sunday night. O’s closer Jim Johnson, perhaps their strongest link in ’12, was just torched for his fourth blown save that became a team loss in Baltimore’s past 12 games, leaving the Birds staggering.

As long ago as 1901, both Washington and Baltimore had major league teams called the Nationals and Orioles. Both towns lost their franchises for long, dismal periods. Twice, from ’54 through ’71 and from ’05 to the present, they have overlapped as big league cities. But never have both towns had teams with big and realistic dreams, chips on their shoulders, too.

Finally, a true rivalry, with big stakes on the table, seems ready to emerge.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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