Davey Johnson was especially blunt in his assessment of 25-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg’s last outing. Washington’s 2009 No. 1 overall pick gave up six hits and three runs in six innings of work in which he struck out six and threw 109 pitches to the Miami Marlins.
“He was actually awful,” Johnson told reporters after the start. “He was. I mean, every pitch he threw was up. He’s got such great stuff, but everything was belt-high. I grew to love him when he pitched for me in the Olympics in Beijing. He’s a pitcher. He has command. Everything is right on the knees.
“Everything tonight, sometimes it’s more like even the curve ball was belt-high. Fastball stayed... was up all night. It was not typical Stephen. He had 12 days, didn’t pitch, but he’s got such good stuff. When he gets the mindset that all he has to do is go after them and make his pitches and locate them, it doesn’t matter how fast they are or whatever, he’s going to be real dominant. But that wasn’t vintage Strasburg tonight, for me.”
Johnson’s been talking about and pining for the “vintage Strasburg” he managed in the Beijing Olympics since the two of them reconnected as manager and pitcher in Washington, D.C. in 2011. When Strasburg returned to the mound in the majors following Tommy John surgery late that season, Johnson had taken over as the Nats manager following Jim Riggleman’s departure. The then-68-year-old Johnson talked to reporters that September about the history the two shared and how Johnson and his U.S. baseball coaches had decided to add Strasburg to the ‘08 Olympic roster.
“He was the only amateur I had on the Olympic team,” Johnson explained. “After talking to a lot of our scouts, we reviewed all the minor leaguers, and a lot of times the organizations protect their No. 1 draftees, even when they’re in the first year. I know the Yankees wouldn’t let me have (Phil) Hughes, he was in Tampa I think at the time, so I heard about (Strasburg) and his stuff and he was doing it under Tony Gwynn in San Diego. I said, ‘Yeah, I can probably find a spot for him.’
“Then when I had him on the Olympics, he started his first game against the Dutch, who I was very familiar with, all their hitters. He had that no-hitter through six innings, I said, ‘Holy moly.’ I looked over at Marcel Lachemann, the pitching coach, and I said, ‘He’s got a no-hitter through six, we’ve got to pray he gives up a hit so I can hook him,’ and he did give up a hit and we won that game 7-0. Now seeing him get to the big leagues in a very short time and now he’s coming back and pitching again, for me, I’m excited.”
Strasburg made two starts for the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, beating the Dutch and then facing the Cuban national team in the Olympic semifinals, where he gave up 6 hits and 3 runs in four innings, striking out five without walking a single batter. The U.S. lost the second game 10-2 to Cuba and Strasburg took the loss, which left him with a 1-1 record and a 2.45 ERA for the Olympics. Johnson loved the pitcher he saw at that time, as he’s mentioned repeatedly in the last few seasons.
Their shared history came up again earlier this summer when Johnson talked to reporters after a 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in which Strasburg allowed five hits and three runs, all in the first inning of a seven-inning outing.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Johnson said. “He sometimes gets upset when he doesn’t execute his pitches. I think he’s kind of - I think with all the expectations (for) this ballclub, some guys have tried to dial it up a notch and be a little more fine and when they throw a breaking ball, snap it off the table, make it perfect, and he doesn’t need to do that.”
The Strasburg that Johnson saw that day, he explained, was a different pitcher than the one he managed with Team USA in the ‘08 Beijing Olympics, who relied more on command. After his 14-strikeout major league debut and the high strikeout totals he put up early in his career, Johnson said Strasburg changed his approach.
“(He went) away from contact,” Johnson explained, “But when he gets back to attacking hitters and going right after them with good location, he’s nasty. But his stuff was always pretty consistent. It’s just his command when he tries to do too much.”
The Strasburg his manager was looking for finally showed up this past August when the right-hander threw his first complete game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies, striking out 10 and finishing nine innings of work on just 99 pitches. Johnson, of course, once again brought up the Olympic history the two shared.
“He’s always, ever since I had him in the Olympics,” Johnson said, “He’s always showed great command of the strike zone with his fastball down in the zone and basically fastball, curveball. I don’t think he threw that many changeups today, it was basically fastball, curveball, but he was both sides of the plate. When he’s like that, I mean, he’ll have low-pitch games. How many did he end up striking out, 12?”
Johnson was told Strasburg struck out 10.
“I mean, that’s going deep in games,” he said, “low pitch counts and striking out that number. Instead of going up and trying to miss the bats, he was pretty much saying, ‘Here, hit it.’ Which is great.” Johnson finally saw the Strasburg he was looking for again.
Johnson has made clear over the last three seasons which Strasburg he prefers. The manager/player relationship that began in Beijing ends tonight in Arizona where Strasburg faces the Diamondbacks in his last start of the season. Johnson’s managing his last three games with the Nationals this weekend. Will he get to see the Strasburg he had in the Olympics one more time?
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.