A masterful performance delivered by the Nats’ ace

FLUSHING, N.Y. - After Stephen Strasburg’s last start, in which he allowed four runs and needed 103 pitches to get through 5 1/3 innings, Davey Johnson frustratingly commented that his ace right-hander “really doesn’t know who he is at times.”

The reactions to Strasburg’s outing today were a little different.

“That is the Strasburg I’ve known for a long time,” Johnson said. “That’s him. That’s what he does.”

“I caught him before, it was really good,” catcher Sandy Leon said. “But today, he was perfect.”

“It’s a striking resemblance to (Justin) Verlander,” said reliever Drew Storen.

Mets manager Terry Collins even got in on the act, providing the following deep thought: “He’s tremendous. My gosh, almighty.”

Strasburg might have been as locked in today as he’s been all season. He worked seven innings, allowed just a single run on four hits, struck out 11 and didn’t walk a batter. The 24-year-old was efficient with his pitches, needing just 94 to get through his seven innings, and both the hurler and his manager said he had plenty more in the tank and could’ve kept working. Johnson even admitted that in a year without innings limits, Strasburg would’ve stayed in to work the eighth.

“He went right after guys,” Johnson said. “He’s still learning how to pitch in this league. He’s got such good stuff. He gets such great publicity. But he’s still a work in progress. The way he pitched today, he didn’t use a lot of his breaking stuff, just sparingly. He located his fastball good. When he does that, he’s capable of going nine innings.”

Strasburg focused on working off his fastball today, throwing just 27 offspeed pitches all afternoon. Seventy-one percent of his pitches were heaters, allowing him to get ahead in the count and have quick innings.

“I think (the mentality) was just attack the strike zone and don’t nibble,” Strasburg said. “Just go out there and make them put the ball in play. Obviously the good pitchers can get through seven in under 100 pitches. So that was definitely a goal. I didn’t want to go out there and try and just nibble the whole time and just have 100 pitches through five.”

The Nationals have been trying to get Strasburg to lean more on his fastball lately and be aggressive with that pitch, something which the righty says is sometimes easier said than done.

“Once you’ve got, I guess, the lights are on and you’re facing another team, you want to go out there and really make your stuff really dirty,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that I think when I take a step back and relax and let it happen instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot.”

Johnson’s point that Strasburg is still a young pitcher in this league is a fair one, and probably one which should be acknowledged more often. Strasburg was drafted in 2009 and this is his third season in which he’s starting in the big leagues, but today was just his 37th career major league outing.

Strasburg is a household name in the baseball world at this point, but he’s still trying to find himself as a pitcher and figure out the best path to success on the mound. And it’s very possible today’s outing will be a step to helping get him there.

“When I first saw him in the (2008) Olympics, I thought he was very mature,” Johnson said. “It looked like he had been around for about five years. On the knees, in and out. I didn’t like when he first came up here. He was overpowering hitters and going up the ladder and throwing 100 miles an hour. That’s more the thrower type, because the media hype. He’s going to get his strikeouts not trying to strike people out. If he tries to make them hit it, he’s going to strike them out.”

“I pitched half a season my first year, got hurt, pitched one month last year, and this is my first real opportunity to pitch a full year,” Strasburg said. “I know I’ve learned a lot so far, and I know there’s plenty more to learn.”

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