Mike Rizzo has referred to Stephen Strasburg in the past as his “silent assassin,” a soft-spoken, but ultra-competitive, elite athlete. The No.1 overall pick in the 2009 draft had his moments. He snapped at a reporter once who asked why he struggled against the Marlins after a tough start against the Fish and reminded everyone that he’d historically done well against Miami. Back in 2010, he told a loud-mouthed fan who made the mistake of taunting Strasburg while the Nationals were ahead on the road to look at the scoreboard.
There were times he stared opposing hitters down or barked at umpires. But early in his pro career, there were some complaints about how the Nationals limited access to the right-hander, who was scrutinized and followed on his way up more closely than just about any prospect that came before him.
Strasburg was followed closely for over a year before he was drafted. His first pro starts in spring training and the minors were nationally televised. The date of his debut was a topic of discussion for weeks before he finally made it. In his first run in the majors, before he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Strasburg converted any doubters who wondered if he could live up to the hype before the injury. Even after he blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery, he was clear about the impact that he felt he had on the baseball world.
“I stirred up the baseball world well enough that it had more people becoming Nats fans and I know they’re going to be there when I come back in a year,” Strasburg told reporters after he had the procedure.
The fans were there when he returned, but so was the scrutiny. As he explained, or as teammates noted when asked about the right-hander, he was uncomfortable with all the attention mostly because, in his mind, he had yet to accomplish anything at the major league level. The attention that was paid to his innings limit last season was seen by some, Davey Johnson included, as a contributing factor in the team’s decision to shut the right-hander down earlier than they’d planned.
In a recent interview on 106.7 The Fan, Rizzo described Strasburg as the “most analyzed pitcher since I’ve been doing this stuff.”
“We break down every minute detail of everything he does,” the Nats general manager said. “We get crazy when he shakes his arm too much and when he gives up two or three runs in a ballgame, but this guy is one of the elite pitchers and he’s continued to be an elite pitcher.”
All the while, Strasburg has remained a relatively quiet pitcher. But when he has a point to make, he’s begun to express himself more openly than he had in previous seasons. You don’t often see pitchers complain about a lack of support from their teammates, but if anyone had a reason to complain about it this season, Strasburg would be at the top of the list. After Thursday’s game, the Nats right-hander had the third-lowest run-support among qualified major league starters.
When he was asked about the lack of support a few weeks back, he had no interest in entertaining questions which could be seen as disparaging towards his teammates. “I’m tired of talking about that,” he said. “These guys battle every single day just like I do, and it just didn’t work out for us tonight, but I’d like to get over that. I’d like to stop answering questions about run support.”
It hasn’t gotten any better for Strasburg. In his last start Wednesday, he held the Pirates to one run on two hits in eight innings in which he struck out 12, but he left the mound with the Nats down 1-0 in a game they eventually lost 4-2. It was their sixth straight loss and it brought the Nats perilously close to being out of the running for a postseason berth. Johnson said after the loss that he hated seeing Strasburg’s efforts go unsupported, but the right-hander was only concerned with one thing when he talked to reporters.
“I don’t really care about the whole wins and losses as a pitcher,” Strasburg said. “I think we need to win some games and it’s getting to the point where our back is against the wall and so we’ve got to do what it takes.”
As the pitcher put it, these are the times when you find out what type of team and what kind of players you have: “Are you the type that’s going to sit there and look in the mirror and do everything you can to do better out there or are you going to start pointing fingers and I don’t think there’s a single guy in the clubhouse that’s going to point fingers.”
Not much was made of the comments. It wasn’t sage-like Jayson Werth delivering a message. Just a player sticking up for his teammates again. Strasburg’s not pointing any fingers. He’s just trying to do his part and excel every time out.
He told reporters Wednesday that he tells himself befor every start to just, “Go out there and pitch like you’re the best pitcher on the planet.” He looked at times against the Pirates like he might just be one the best. And he’s not afraid to let everyone know that’s his goal. He’s not afraid to tell his teammates it’s time to step up. Rizzo’s “silent assassin” may have found his voice.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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.