That’s typical of the nagging Strasburg gets from many, including me at times, though my name’s on it. He is enormously competitive, disciplined and driven. He aspires to an implacable Roy Halladay mound demeanor. But since a strong start on opening day, he has looked rattled at times, and after the national beating he took last year for merely following team orders, he may feel picked on. Who wouldn’t?
There’s an old baseball expression: “The great ones play above the breaks.” Somehow, through talent and athletic arrogance, perhaps mixed with a bit of disdain for the opinion of mankind, the best ballplayers ignore everything that is not of use to them. They perform outside, above, or in defiance of errors by teammates, unfair criticism, poor run support, lousy umpires, dumb media and the infuriating way that the best hitters keep ruining their almost perfect pitches. A bad break, what’s that?
But that’s a process that takes a long time — not just 51 starts spread over four splintered, injured, chopped up partial seasons.
The real pain Strasburg felt against Atlanta may be the same discomfort that has bothered the Nats throughout their 13-14 April: growing pains. That sounds innocent and easily curable. But it’s tricky. Controlling competitive anxiety and channeling it into focused performance is at the core of clutch performance. Strasburg had that gift when he arrived in the majors. So, it’s there. The Nats lacked it last October and have been without it for a month. But they can gain it.
Perspective, within a game or a season, is hard to acquire. It’s tough to step back yet almost shocking when you do. The Nats’ play has been heckled with cries of, “Where is that exciting team from last year?” Yet that team is right before our eyes. Just 365 days ago, the Nats where in the midst of two months of mundane play, going 27-26. That’s almost a third of their entire season! The difference? That stretch came immediately after a 14-4 start. It wasn’t noticed. But it happened.
That problem of perception applies to Strasburg. He has pitched six games: Five were quality starts, and in four, he gave up two earned runs or less. He has plenty to learn, but only in the context of how good he already is.
“He’s still learning to deal with being a number one starter,” Rizzo said.
As long as the Nationals are correct about “no problem . . . strong as an ox,” not just whistling in the dark, Strasburg will have time to figure out how to control his emotions and his mechanics, how to blend his pure stuff with proper strike-throwing aggression. Then the day may come when, even on nights like Monday, he can pitch above the breaks that distract him now.
What a bad break that will be for everyone else.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/