Dave Nichols: Strasburg’s shortened start the prudent course of action

Stephen Strasburg made his second big league start of the season for the Washington Nationals on Sunday. The big righty struggled a bit with his normally pinpoint control and saw a drop in velocity on most his pitches, but he gutted out a 57-pitch, three-inning start, giving up one earned run on three hits. He did not walk a batter for his second consecutive start and struck out four Houston Astros, three on his devastating changeup and one on a biting two-seam fastball.

Manager Davey Johnson lifted Strasburg after three innings for several reasons, not the least of all was a 31-pitch first inning that left Strasburg toiling in the sunshine-fueled, 82-degree heat. Strasburg was throwing strikes, but with each pitch dipping an mile or two per hour off their normal speeds, he wasn’t locating - especially the fastball - with enough precision to finish off Astros hitters. Give some credit where it’s due, as the Houston hitters made Strasburg work, fouling off 10 pitches in the inning. But the big guy was simply not as sharp as he was in his season debut, a sparkling five-inning, two-hit shutout effort.

When Johnson gave Strasburg the hook while the Nats were batting in their half of the third, he knew Strasburg wasn’t going to like it.

“(Strasburg) was irritated. He said, ‘Just three (innings)?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, just three,’ ” Johnson said. “But I expected that. I like the way he’s coming along. I really don’t put a lot of stock into the number of pitches. It’s more whether he labored in the inning. I think that puts more stress on a pitcher than the number of pitches.”

Make no mistake, Strasburg did labor in that first inning. He was rushing his delivery, maybe a bit too amped up, pitching on the Sept. 11 anniversary. Or perhaps just thrown off by the brilliant sunshine, the first time it seems like in weeks we’ve had a sunny day in the area. Whatever it was, he was just off. His catcher, Wilson Ramos, went out to visit. Danny Espinosa stopped by the mound to calm him down. Eventually, pitching coach Steve McCatty went out to talk to his young charge.

Strasburg fought through the inning and he did eventually settle down as the game progressed, retiring the last six batters he faced. It might have been a little disappointing to some in attendance that the future of the Nats rotation only stuck around for three innings in his second start, but it was best for Johnson to get him out of the game when he did. Even if Johnson was thinking about giving Strasburg another inning, the Nats half-hour-long, third-inning rally, including consecutive home runs by Ian Desmond, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Zimmerman, cemented the idea for the veteran skipper. No sense in putting Strasburg back out in the heat after cooling down for that long.

The recovery and rehabilitation of Strasburg was, is and continues to be the biggest storyline of the Nationals’ 2011 season. It’s a learning process for him, Johnson and the organization. If being overly cautious in an otherwise meaningless September start means disappointing a few in attendance, that’s the price they have to pay. I’m pretty sure if Strasburg leads this team to great things in the next couple of seasons, those fans will be back in their seats and not complaining.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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