Stephen Strasburg was brilliant on Friday night against the San Diego Padres. He struck out 11 batters over seven scoreless innings. His fastball command was sharp and his off-speed pitches, kept low in the strike zone, were cartoonish. He moved into first place in the majors with 53 strikeouts, also the most in a single month for a Nationals pitcher. His ERA dropped to 4.24, after his second straight strong start and third in four starts.
The following are some leftover observations from Strasburg’s best start of the season:
>>> After focusing on his fastball command following his clunker of a start against the Marlins on April 15, Strasburg has improved in his past two starts. He threw a first-pitch strike to five of the first six batters. Overall, he got a first-pitch strike on 16 of the 28 batters he faced.
“I’m just trying to make quality pitches and not be necessarily overly aggressive by throwing the heater down the middle and challenging them,” he said. “I’m just trying to make my pitches from the first pitch on.”
“He had good fastball command down and away to right-handed hitters,” Manager Matt Williams added. “At 95 miles per hour, that’s tough for anybody to hit. And then he mixed in his off-speed pitches, but the key (Friday night) for him was his fastball. Spotting it down and away from righties.”
>>> Before Friday, the most pitches Strasburg had thrown in a start was 102 in the season opener. Since then, he logged starts of 96, 98, 81 and 90 pitches. But with an 8-0 lead after six innings, Williams sent Strasburg out to the mound for the seventh. The Nationals’ bullpen has carried a heavy load this season and, despite a pitch count already at 101, Strasburg was ready for more.
“We get into a situation during the course of this year where he’s got a 1-run lead going into the seventh and he’s at 100, we want him to be used to it and be able to get to the eighth, if we want him to go that far,” Williams said. “To be able to get him up over 100 and up over 110. It’s important for him. Because if he gets into those situations, he’s used to it, and he’s done it.”
Strasburg needed only eight pitches to through through the seventh inning, even though he gave up a two-out hit. Williams was pleased with the efficiency.
“That’s the learning curve, I think,” he said. “He knows where he’s at pitch-count-wise. And he knows that his pitches are probably limited in that inning anyway. So he went right after them. He threw even more fastballs in that last inning than he had in the previous inning. That’s just him understanding where he’s at in the game and he’s got to pound the strike zone and go after them.”
>>> Friday was only the third time Jose Lobaton has started behind the plate with Strasburg pitching. Sandy Leon has caught Strasburg twice and Wilson Ramos started the season opener. Over the past month, Lobaton has grown more comfortable talking to the reserved Strasburg and it has helped them in the game.
“First time was kinda like I don’t know how to go talk to him in the dugout,” Lobaton said. “He’s kinda like quiet guy. He like to be alone. He like to talk to the pitching coach. In the beginning, I was kinda like, ‘Ugh.’ I talked to Matt, I talked to the pitching coach, I talked to the hitting coach, and all the guys how you can handle that, how you can talk to him. They were like, ‘No, he’s quiet but he listens to you.’”
Now, Lobaton is different around Strasburg. He talks often with him, and there’s back and forth between them during the game.
“If I make a mistake, I caught a pitch and we get a basehit,” Lobaton said. “I was kinda like mad. He got mad, too. I was like, ‘Ok, my bad.’ I tell him another pitcher, this pitch can do better. He said, ‘It’s okay.’ Day by day you be learning his attitude. He’s nice. He’s a good guy to talk.”
“It’s been good,” Strasburg said of getting to know Lobaton. “He works really hard. He’s put in a lot of work in the video room, getting to know these hitters, especially coming from the American League. I like throwing to him a lot.”