For Stephen Strasburg, it feels like so much time has passed and so much has changed. The moment the Washington Nationals shut down his 2012 season defined him in the view of many. Strasburg reflects more on what has happened since — the ways he has grown and the days gone by. He keeps his focus on the present, not the pennant race he missed and not the postseason destined to come next month.
Strasburg will climb the Nationals Park mound Friday night and face the Philadelphia Phillies in his 30th start of the season. The Nationals lead the Atlanta Braves by seven games in the National League East, similar to the position they occupied in 2012, when Strasburg was forced to watch. Three days from now, it will be two years ago exactly. Is that a lot of time?
For Strasburg, it has been enough to grow more comfortable in his own skin, to learn how to accept what he views as the inevitable roller coaster of a major league season. In his four previous seasons, he has been a rookie sensation, a rehabbing Tommy John survivor, a victim of precaution and a member of a staff playing out the string. Strasburg will carry the lessons of those experiences into this fall, when for the first time he will take part in a pennant race.
“As you get older, it becomes easier for you to relax out there,” Strasburg said Wednesday morning, sitting in the visitors dugout at Dodger Stadium. “I think I’ve become more comfortable with myself, where I’m at physically. You get out there, and you feel like there’s this overwhelming pressure to live up to the hype of being a No. 1 pick. It’s unfortunate because there’s no learning curve. You have to go in there, and you’re expected to produce. If you don’t, everybody is saying you’re overhyped or overrated.
“I think it makes you a tougher person through all that. You become a little bit older, and they stop talking about you every freakin’ day. It becomes easier to kind of just accept and roll with the highs and lows of the season. Because that’s all it really is. The majority of guys have highs and lows. The good ones know how to learn from the negative and stay consistent.”
With his first three outs Friday night, Strasburg will surpass 183 innings for this season, uncharted territory for him. He feels healthy and strong, the product of rigorous offseason work and refined between-starts upkeep. He dialed back bullpen sessions by design, and it has helped him “save bullets,” he said. He works with Nationals strength and conditioning coach John Philbin to maintain stamina.
When the Nationals shut him down two years ago, they had this in mind — a run of seasons in which Strasburg entered September with a fresh right arm. In Strasburg’s assessment, the success of the shutdown will be known only further into the future.
“I think the biggest reason why people in the organization wanted it to happen was durability,” Strasburg said. “They felt like it was the right thing to do for the longevity of the career. Only time can answer that. I work hard every single day. I work hard in the offseason to put my body in the best shape I possibly can for the season. I’m doing everything I can to stay healthy. Hopefully, it works out.”
He missed the postseason berth he helped earn in 2012, an experience his friends and teammates all enjoyed. Strasburg said he is “excited that there’s a possibility of having the same opportunity and being able to be a part of it.” He will go no further than that. He has the Phillies on Friday and the Braves five days later. He does not look further ahead, and he does not look back.
“I don’t think that there’s going to be anything from two years ago,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I don’t think that’s on his mind, paying anyone back or showing that we made the wrong decision. I don’t think he has that in his mind at all.”
For some, Strasburg and the shutdown are inseparable topics of discussion. The Nationals’ reentry into a pennant race is reigniting the noisy, endless debate about his innings limit. In 2012, Strasburg bristled about the constant din. Manager Davey Johnson cited the media hype’s strain on Strasburg as a central reason for the timing of his shutdown. Now, Strasburg says, he ignores it.
“Out of my control,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t really bother me. I choose not to watch that stuff. It’s not going to make me a better pitcher watching what some analyst has to say. I enjoy being around the guys. I enjoy picking guys’ brains who actually played the game and have been out there between the lines. I’ll let all the analysts who’ve never toed the rubber to make their own opinions.”
Despite notable hiccups throughout the season, Strasburg is pitching his best as fall approaches. The Nationals have won his past four starts, all of which came with Jose Lobaton behind the plate. After his last start, Strasburg described throwing to Lobaton as operating on “auto-pilot.” He has thrown fastballs inside more often with Lobaton catching, and Lobaton is more proficient at framing strikes, particularly change-ups low in the zone, than Wilson Ramos.
Even with a clunker against the San Francisco Giants that required an explosive comeback, Strasburg has a 2.36 ERA in those four starts. In four of six August outings, Strasburg pitched at least seven innings and yielded one or zero runs. There have been more highs than lows recently.
Strasburg would not necessarily agree with the notion he’s at his best right now. For him, it’s too fleeting to make declarations. Some days, he can feel perfect and get hit around. Other days, he can feel flat and dominate. Strasburg has toggled between excellent results and lousy performances all season. McCatty and Strasburg have diagnosed one central difference between good and bad.
Strasburg, like other Nationals starters, has a tendency to open his front shoulder too soon in his delivery. It causes his arm to drag behind, which gives hitters an early look at the ball and makes his fastball tail to the right. During his best days, fastballs that Strasburg throws to the left side of the plate dot the corner. On days when he gets hit hard, those pitches veer over the middle.
In Strasburg’s last start, Lobaton called for more fastballs to the right side of the plate, not allowing the glitch to come into play. Strasburg has focused on eliminating the mechanical flaw and correcting it in the middle of a start. “There’s always the next pitch,” Strasburg said. “You got to have that confidence.”
“Right now, there’s no laying back,” McCatty said. “There’s no holding back. There’s no waiting to save him for the playoffs. There’s no being scared. There’s no doing things different. You do the things that you’ve done, that when you’re successful, you still try to do those things. I don’t think he’s going to do anything different. I don’t think he’s tired one bit. He’s worked his butt off.”
The most important starts of Strasburg’s career, the kind he did not get to make in 2012, will come in the next month. He will try to take them as they come and push the rest of it — what happened two years ago, what will come next — out of his head.
“All you really can do is go out there and compete,” Strasburg said. “If you focus on that, pressure doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you’re going to go out there with what you have that day. You got to find a way to win.”