By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Distance is a great deodorant, but the Nationals stink all the way to China. So watching Stephen Strasburg strike out five of Cuba's best stars in four innings here Friday helped improve the smell of Washington's future just a bit.
Let's not get too intoxicated with this Strasburg kid, just because he's barely 20, is the same size as the young Roger Clemens and had nice poise in a game that could have sent a bunch of American minor leaguers into a gold medal game.
Let's not get disheveled just because the Nats are so bad they might clinch the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, after Strasburg ends his career at San Diego State.
Oh, and scouts have timed his fastball as high as 101. That's miles per hour. But his best pitch is his curveball.
No, let's not get too excited. But pretty excited is just fine.
Here's the news: Strasburg's not perfect. Cuba's old pros worked him deep in counts, figured out that he didn't trust his change-up, made him throw 75 pitches in four frames and nicked him for a couple of earned runs. But the kid made several of Cuba's best hitters look silly and kept the United States in the game, trailing just 3-2 when he left against a squad as good as several in the majors -- and a lot better than the Nats. When Cuba got its teeth into other pitchers, the final was 10-2.
At the end of a long season when Strasburg has pitched twice as many innings as ever before and is working on fumes, he still challenged the heart of Cuba's order with a 93- to 97-mph fastball and a curveball that really is as knee buckling as advertised.
"Stephen did exceptionally well. He has too good a future ahead of him to let him labor even a little," U.S. Manager Davey Johnson said. "He kept us in good position. We didn't hold 'em.
"He has a great future -- lot of command, great stuff," said Johnson, adding with the sardonic smirk that endeared him to fans but not owners, "under normal circumstances I'd probably have let him throw 130 pitches."
That would probably have been the U.S. team's best chance. But you can endanger a phenom. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander looked better than anybody in the Nats' chain on a night when Johnson said: "Look, the kid was amped. So, he was humping up, overthrowing a little. That costs you speed instead of adding more. He's been on irregular rest. He's never pitched or traveled this much. But look how good he was anyway.
"He has tremendous mechanics. Against the Netherlands [when he allowed one hit and struck out 11 in seven innings], he showed he could spot his fastball right where he wanted it at 94-95. Locate his curveball. And he had a good change-up that day, too."
But the Dutch don't scare anybody. Cuba does. Strasburg was hard on himself, respectful of Cuba, but not overly impressed with a team of big league quality.
"My stuff was [just] okay. I was up in the zone a little. I could have used my change-up a little more," said Strasburg, who shows little emotion on the mound and ended all four of his innings by overpowering hitter, two for strikeouts.
"They're a really good team that will hit a mistake. A lot of their players could be in the big leagues right now," added the pitcher who has gained muscle thanks to his college workout program and has had the pleasure of learning to cope with radically improved stuff.
"They do a good job of taking pitches. They're disciplined. But if I'd executed better, I'd have been all right. The worst pitch I threw all night [a high slider] was hit out of the park," a solo homer by Alfredo Despaigne.
Nobody knows if Strasburg will ever be a Nat. Others can read the standings. Seattle appears to have quit. The Padres just got serious about getting bad, trading Greg Maddux. The path to No. 1 overall is never smooth. But the Nats might have what it takes: the worst offense, adjusted for era, ever.
Of course, being on pace for 105 loses has its pitfalls. As Johnson, who was a Nats consultant two years ago, asked with concern, "Who's going to take the fall?"
Nobody is going to find fault with a U.S. team that might be making its last appearance in the Olympics, with the sport being discontinued after this year. Johnson has taken minor leaguers, plus Strasburg, and gone 5-3 with a chance for a bronze medal in Saturday's game against Japan. Until Cuba scored six runs in the eighth, even the United States' losses had been close -- in the bottom of the ninth and the 11th inning.
"We can compete on the world stage anytime. We've more than held out own here and we've beaten Cuba the last two times we've played 'em" in other events, Johnson said. "But major league baseball is a very big business, and sometimes players we could use are called up [to the majors] or not allowed to come."
In other words, as soon as somebody gets hot in the minors, Davey can't have him for the Olympics anymore.
Getting Strasburg, the only college player chosen for the Olympic team, was the squad's one lucky break.
Last week, Cuba got Johnson riled when Jason Nix, a Colorado Rockies farmhand, while attempting to bunt, fouled off a knockdown pitch. Nix suffered a mild concussion. Johnson and Cuba Manager Antonio Pacheco had a little fuss.
In the past, Johnson might have sent an early message, courtesy of Strasburg, in this game. But you don't do that with a 20-year-old.
"Going to flip the first guy?" I asked.
"I'd like to," Johnson said, laughing.
But he has mellowed. Instead, Davey ground his teeth as the Cubans pranced out their four home runs.
"They have a lot of fun. They do a lot of things we don't condone in the U.S.," Johnson said. "But it's over."
It is for Strasburg, at any rate.
"This was a major learning experience and something I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said.
Does he ever look at the big league standings and wonder where he'll be this time next year?
"It's not my number one goal to be taken number one overall," he said, maybe fibbing. "I want San Diego State to go to the College World Series."
Strasburg may pitch in a different kind of Series someday. Could it be for a Washington team that's lousy now? With the Nats' luck, it might be Seattle, Washington.