Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg gets a taste of reality

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; 12:33 AM

Stephen Strasburg's MRI exam came back negative: No signs of a curveball or change-up.

In the long run, all that matters presumably is that, in his return to the Nationals' rotation from the disabled list on Tuesday night, Strasburg touched 100 mph, snapped off sharp though erratic curves and was pain free. With time, his finesse should return.

But with 19 days of rust since his last start, the 22-year-old was stripped of all the polish that has defined his dazzling rookie year. The sight was stunning for a mute crowd of 25,939 that had come to expect the remarkable and anticipate the spectacular. For those who perhaps failed to understand that Strasburg's fastball - the highest in the majors at an average of 97.4 mph - is his least exceptional quality, this game was the object lesson.

"My arm felt really good . . . I just didn't know where it was going today," Strasburg said after getting shelled for five doubles, a homer, two walks and six runs in 4 1/3 innings of an 8-2 loss to Florida. "This is the first time [in the majors] when not one pitch I felt like I had control of it."

With no confidence in his control of his change-up, Strasburg threw only one circle change in his first 60 pitches. In the first inning, he missed the plate with five straight curves, tantamount to holding up a sign saying, "Sit on my fastball."

The slugger-packed Marlins did. Aside from opposing pitcher Anbal Snchez, who fanned twice, Florida swung and missed at only four of Strasburg's 84 pitches; only two other Fish whiffed. As Strasburg fell behind 2-0 and 3-0 in counts, the powerful Marlins took batting practice.

Now, in a believe-it-or-not, the lowest ERA for Nats starters belongs to Livn Hernndez (3.03), not Strasburg (3.07).

"Any concern would only be about his health and he feels great, strong," said Manager Jim Riggleman. "Rust is probably the right word. . .He didn't get in sync with any one of his pitches . . . We've raised the bar very high with Stephen, maybe unfairly. I think he'll be better next time out."

For the first time since he came into national prominence, baseball saw a disarmed Strasburg. The youngster was reduced to being a one-pitch rookie and the beating he took was worse than his box score line.

Take a good look. Such a sight may be rare. Even by his next scheduled start on Sunday against Arizona, he may start to get command of the curve and change-up that are at least as feared by hitters as his fastball. When he has fairly precise command of all three, he's worthy of every jersey that's been sold with his name on the back. But a hot fastball in poor locations just gets you crushed. For a guy without ink, Jeeesus sure got tattooed.

For those who prefer to worry, despite those 98-to-100 mph readings early in the game, Strasburg did not prove unequivocally that his shoulder is completely sound or that the wear of his longest season hasn't degraded his best stuff. His velocity, even from a windup, fell to 95 mph by his final pitches, and from the stretch he had even less steam. Dan Uggla, who had four RBI off him, yanked a two-run double off the wall on a mere 93-mph fastball.

Will Strasburg regain both power and precision with more work? That would be the conventional analysis of a normal pitcher. But everything about Strasburg is raised to a higher power, especially the strain that such extraordinary stuff must put on his arm. After throwing hard for more than six months - he arrived in Viera throwing smoke from the first day - is he starting to show wear? If so, how many such outings will the Nats allow before they start to think about shutting down the Strasburg Show for '10?

Against the free-swinging D-backs, who strike out more than any team in baseball, Strasburg may begin to allay such concerns. Or reinforce them. In a season when he has confronted, and surmounted, so many mental and emotional challenges, it's just one more test.

But how many should any rookie need to pass?

For six months, Strasburg has fulfilled every Nationals dream - and more. But his last two nights at Nationals Park have introduced the sport's two nightmares - arm problems and early-career wear-and-tear - to our drama.

All these themes may make a great 1,000-page novel, but did we really need to have them all packed into Strasburg's first 51 weeks as a National?

Two weeks ago, when Strasburg had the stiff shoulder than sent shivers down a million spines, my family and I were watching from the stands as the crowd buzzed, all of us speculating. "Shoulder MRI" may be the most feared words in baseball. When I got home, I flicked on the TV and noticed I'd permanently saved replays of Strasburg's best three starts so far. "Good," I thought.

That kind of thinking is morbidly unnecessary, but to a baseball fan it's also almost inescapable.

We remember the saddest stories most vividly. Mark Prior visited Washington in early '04 when he was the 245-strikeout toast of the sport; the president, George W. Bush, particularly wanted to make sure that Prior was invited to a cozy dinner party for 16 at the White House. Within months, Prior's career turned sour. He won just 42 games.

Study the history of over-the-moon phenoms such as Prior, however, and it's clear that, once they've shown they can dominate in the big leagues, most of them have at least a half-dozen seasons to show their stuff.

Those perfect 20-year careers are rare, but outright early-career disaster for great talent is in the minority.

Everybody in baseball thinks they have an eye for pitching mechanics. I like Strasburg's balanced smooth delivery, with the ball almost exploding out of his shirt front. If I had to bet, I'd pick him for longevity. But Nationals President Stan Kasten has it right when he says, "Everybody has an opinion, but nobody really knows."

So far, the Nats have invoked all the best cautious practices currently in favor in the game. No more than 100 pitches in a game. Only 160 innings this season.

And, until age 24, when the arm is as strong as it'll ever get, always err on the side of caution.

Still, no human arm is built for throwing a baseball, and the more radical the stuff that spits out of that gifted hand, the more the strain.

So, fantasies and fears always seem a hairsbreadth apart. Until two weeks ago, the Nats and their fans had only the former. Now, we get a sour but almost inevitable sample of the latter.

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