Strasburg’s early-career “soul searching” prepared him for this Game 1 start

Manager Dusty Baker announced right-hander Stephen Strasburg will be the Nationals’ Game 1 starter Friday night in the National League Division Series against the Cubs.

“I kind of had an idea of what was going to happen a couple days ago,” Strasburg said. “You know, they told me to throw a bullpen on the first workout day.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs again. It’s one thing you really can’t take for granted, and you’ve got to make the most of every opportunity you get.”

There had been speculation that Max Scherzer would be the Game 1 starter after he started last year’s playoff opener against the Dodgers. But Scherzer has been dealing with a tight right hamstring and did not get his bullpen in yesterday or today.

“We didn’t want him to test it yesterday,” said manager Dusty Baker on Scherzer. “He threw some flat ground, but every day is important. When you have a nagging injury, every day is important for our trainers to evaluate it, put hands on him, and see if he’s still sore or if he’s feeling great.”

Baker knows that going to Scherzer for Game 2 allows for the Nats to go back to him again for Game 5. But the decision is not that easy.

“We realize that if he pitched Game 2, he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary,” Baker said. “We realize that, but is that worth, you know, taking a chance, and if you get past the first round and then are you jeopardizing the second round? So you have to kind of weigh both. But you know, the health of Max, I think, is number one.”

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez did get his bullpen in today, so he will be the club’s Game 2 starter. If Scherzer gets through today and tomorrow well, he would be the Game 3 starter when the series switches to Chicago.

Throwing-Stephen-Strasburg-white.pngBut in the end, despite not having Scherzer completely healthy for Game 1, Strasburg is just as good an alternative.

On Friday, Sept. 29, he went 7 2/3 shutout innings in a 6-1 win over the Pirates. He allowed only two hits, walked two and struck out eight over 98 pitches, 63 for strikes.

Strasburg made 28 starts and went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA this season, his most starts since 34 in 2014. Compairing the season to those in the past that were derailed by injury, Strasburg detailed how he tried to stay healthy the entire season. He said he noticed something was up that could cause concern right after the All-Star break. Strasburg went on the disabled list from July 24-Aug. 19 with a right elbow nerve impingement.

“I think I really just tried to listen to my body,” Strasburg said. “You know, something just wasn’t right thereafter the All-Star Break, and we were definitely conservative with it. I think it’s something that I could have pitched through, but looking back on it now, I really just made that decision with the training staff because, you know, my ultimate goal was to be there at the end.

“I was able to accomplish that, and obviously my body is feeling much better than it did. That’s a positive. So you know, I just look back on that as a learning experience in itself, and to not necessarily go out there and think like small picture, like next start, but big picture. I think this team has the ability to do a lot of really good things in the playoffs here, and I just want to be a part of it.”

His September was the best in baseball. Strasburg was honored as the National League Pitcher of the Month after not allowing an earned run in five of his last six starts. He has allowed only three earned runs in the past 47 2/3 innings (0.57 ERA). The 15 wins matches a career high total set in 2012. That month of work makes it an easy choice for Strasburg to be the first game pitcher in the Division Series, even with the Scherzer hamstring issue.

“It’s great. He definitely deserves it,” said right fielder Bryce Harper. “He’s been one of the best pitchers in the National League this year and all of baseball. Excited to see him go out there and do his thing. He’s one of the best. We have all the faith in him in the world to do his job and hopefully we can get a few runs for him and he can shut ‘em down.

Baker said Strasburg did not get emotional when told he would be the Series opening starter.

“He was very disappointed (about not pitching in 2016 postseason), but he doesn’t really show disappointment, or happiness, either way, really,” Baker said. “Because I called him in before I got here, and I just said, “Hey, man, you’re starting Game 1. You probably figured that.’

“He had that same look when he left my office as when he came in. It’s the truth, I swear. Anybody that knows him, I was like, man, I thought he was going to be like, ‘Yeah!’, or something -- but he was extremely happy.”

Following last Friday’s final regular season start, Strasburg gave a hat tip to his catcher Matt Wieters, complimenting him on the strategy they used facing the Pirates, a team he had pitched against way back in May. On May 16 at PNC Park, Strasburg beat the Bucs 8-4. Wieters told Strasburg he would need to mix up things this tum around because he knew the Pirates would be expecting something similar to the May start.

So why has Strasburg been so good? Wieters noticed this season that Strasburg has done a good job of being more consistent in the strike zone.

“I think he’s in the zone a little bit more this year the way he’s attacking guys and hitters know they have to be aggressive on him,” Wieters said. “You don’t want to get behind in the count on a guy with that kind of stuff. I think you are seeing hitters kind of change their game plan a little bit that they go after pitches a little bit earlier in the count on him.”

Wieters built off that first start against Pittsburgh in May in planning for that second start last week. He said the focus was to keep the hitter’s guessing.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably been a big part of his second half success is everybody knows Stras has great stuff,” Wieters said. “It’s even better stuff when a hitter can’t guess what’s coming. I think that’s the big deal for him of being able to mix his pitches is the hitter is going to have to either really guess and not have an idea or go and try and hit four pitches, which is going to be tough to do for him.”

Strasburg remembers the pain of not getting to pitch in the 2012 postseason. He also remembers the burden of being the chosen one for pitching. Fast forward to 2017, and Strasburg has a maturity about his game that has made this run make sense.

“I think from day one, there was pretty high expectations,” Strasburg said. “I think you just have to do a little bit of soul searching, look yourself in the mirror, and when things don’t go well, learn from it. But the biggest thing is keep moving forward and trusting the process.

“As a pitcher, I like to take pride in that: the effort I put out there in each start and the amount of pitches that I execute. I think that’s something that’s really helped me is playing the game within the game and focusing on what you can control out there and making the adjustments when necessary, and you know, when all is said and done, just knowing that you gave it everything you had.”

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