Even in defeat, Nationals' Strasburg continues to amaze

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, June 24, 2010; D01

Now, after suffering his first major league defeat, 1-0, to Kansas City on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg is starting to learn how Walter Johnson felt.

No one in big league history ever won as many 1-0 games as Johnson (38) or lost as many 1-0 games (26). So, the way the Nationals have been hitting lately, Strasburg may have to learn to cope the same way the old Senator did a century ago. If the team with "Washington" on its chest won't help you much, just keep trying to rise above 'em.

If anything, the way Strasburg has reacted to this non-support has impressed his manager and teammates even more. In two straight pitchers' duels, his competitiveness and ability to stifle rallies with clutch pitches have demonstrated his heart. They already knew about his stuff, command, poise and maturity. Now they know he's a fighter, too.

"The Royals have the highest batting average [in the big leagues] and Stephen competed with less than his best stuff today. They know how to hit. They got nine [singles]. But when it was gut-check time with men on base, he reached back and got a little extra," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

"This time, he was really good. The other times, he's been spectacular. He's just a treasure," Riggleman said. "It's time for him to be mentioned with the other pitchers who came into the league like a house afire, like Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens."

In his previous start, Strasburg faced the White Sox, the hardest team in baseball to strike out, yet left after seven innings against Chicago with a 1-1 tie and 10 strikeouts. This time, against Kansas City, the second-hardest team to strike out, he left after six battling innings with nine strikeouts and, again, no walks. What happens when he meets the D'backs, who strike out 10 times while they're still in the parking lot?

In his three starts at Nationals Park, Strasburg now has 33 strikeouts and no walks.

That's just as stupid good as you think it is. And the public has responded. With a crowd of 31,913 on a sweltering afternoon for a 4:35 p.m. start, the Nats' attendance for June has now risen by more than 33 percent over April and May with three crowds for non-Strasburg games over 31,000. In their next homestand, helped by two Strasburg starts, they'll almost certainly leapfrog from 24th to 19th in attendance in the span of five weeks.

Since they first saw Strasburg in spring training, the Nats have been stingy with compliments and comparisons, trying not to praise a rookie too much too soon. But, perhaps his proof of heart, or their inability to help him in the least, loosened their tongues. The Royals have many flaws, but they are as good a slap-hitting team as the sport provides. And they followed their plan perfectly with two infield hits, three singles poked through the middle and four more singles plunked to the opposite field.

Yet it got them only one run as Strasburg actually lowered his ERA to 1.78 and set a record for most strikeouts in the first four games of a career (41), topping Herb Score (40).

"A guy with the stuff he has, and the way he handles himself out there, is not going to be hit hard by a high-average team or a high home run team," Ryan Zimmerman said. "There's no team that's going to be able to handle him. It's not going to matter.

"He's unbelievable."

Strasburg also impresses his mates with his sense of baseball appropriateness. Asked for his reaction to a report that his rookie baseball card was going on eBay for $101,000, Strasburg literally winced and said: "Let's focus on the game. It was a tough loss for us."

But the kid can still improve. He lost this game, rather than leaving it 0-0, because he simply threw too many strikes -- especially at the wrong times. His 75 strikes in 95 pitches against the Royals borders on ludicrous, especially since he is melding best-of-Maddux strike ratios with Ubaldo Jiménez stuff.

However, in the fifth inning, it cost him. With one on and two outs, he got quick 0-2 counts on the Royals' 4-5 hitters, Billy Butler and José Guillén. That's the time to expand the plate and get 'em to chase. Yet Strasburg threw back-to-back strikes to both Butler and Guillén. A soft single by Butler, then a line hit by Guillén produced the only run.

"He still has a little to learn about how to pitch in certain counts," Guillén said. "He got me 1-2 or something and threw me a fastball right down the middle."

Strasburg knows better, but all his instincts are to attack. "His intent was correct," Riggleman said. "But he didn't get some of those pitches quite where he wanted them."

Nevertheless, Strasburg's fearlessness is part of his intimidation. At one point, he threw 17 consecutive strikes. "With him, it's mano-a-mano. Here I am. There you are. I'm beating you," reliever Matt Capps said. "The fans can sense it. That's one reason they get into it so loudly when he's pitching. . . . His change-up is like a Nintendo pitch.

"Pitchers like that only come around every once in a while," Capps said. "He's the guy in my generation."

Even when he loses, Strasburg shows some new element in his pitching makeup, like allowing nine Royals hits but giving up only one run. In his previous start, he struck out six White Sox with his change-up -- his worst pitch a year ago.

"Stephen didn't have a real good change-up in college, but [pitching coaches] Spin Williams, Randy Tomlin and Greg Booker helped him refine it," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "Now, it has hellacious late movement. It's one of the things that separates him."

"His change-up has to be one of the best in the game. You pretty much have to hit his fastball early in the count," the Royals' Scott Podsednik said.

With each start, some tiny Strasburg nuance gets polished. Cover first base a hair faster (White Sox). Use more "chase" pitches on 0-2 to heart-of-the-order hitters (Royals).

But, for the most part, Strasburg has already "separated himself" so much from other pitchers that, when he has an off day, when his fastball tops at 98, not 100, when he gets dinked for nine singles, this is what it looks like: a 1-0 loss that leaves both teams raving.

"The only thing he hasn't done is prove himself over a long period of time," Riggleman said. "It's not his fault he just got here."

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