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?”