Stephen Strasburg quieted his critics last season, his seven shutout innings in the Nationals’ Game 4 of the National League Division Series victory capping a workmanlike season that saw the right-hander take the ball from opening day until final outing, the dominant start-to-finish season that had eluded him.
Yes, there were some speed bumps along the way, just to test his mettle. His spot in the rotation changed when staff ace Max Scherzer’s start of the season was delayed by a fractured knuckle, meaning Strasburg was pressed into service as the opening day starter. In the playoffs, Strasburg was under the weather, wasn’t going to pitch, then felt well enough to gut out a do-or-die start. And the Nationals were glad he did.
The season numbers - a 15-4 record, 2.52 ERA and 1.015 WHIP (both bests in any full season as a starter) - earned him acclaim as a finalist for the Cy Young Award that went to Scherzer. Strasburg was so confident that his teammate would win that he only Facetimed into the live MLB Network broadcast announcing the winner.
“I think physically, there was that little spot around the All-Star Game, but I’m glad with how I bounced back,” he said Sunday at Nationals Winterfest. “I think I progressed a little bit in that department with how my body works and what I need to do. I think it’s not satisfied by any means, but I think there’s more in the tank. So I’m excited. I was excited to get back to work as soon as the season was over, to keep trying to get better, keep getting stronger, and get out there next season.”
But Strasburg’s season might have been even more impressive were it not for a couple of starts - one before the All-Star break, one after - that stuck in his craw and toyed with his numbers. On June 23, he surrendered eight hits and a season-worst five earned runs in five innings in a 6-5 win over the Reds in D.C. In his second start after the All-Star break, Strasburg departed after two innings in Arizona, pulled as a precaution with right forearm stiffness.
Ever the creature of habit, Strasburg thinks he knows what caused the blip on the radar: his selection to the All-Star Game, where he didn’t pitch but was still expected to participate in all the events and hoopla surrounding the festivities in Miami.
That meant deviating from his routine, something he abhors.
“I think I felt like at the All-Star break, it was a tough situation,” Strasburg said. “Might have to rethink about if I’m going to actually pitch or not pitch in an All-Star Game, whether I’ll actually go altogether. That was the issue I felt like was the reason why I got hurt. I was on such a good program with the training staff and massage therapists - I was in this routine. Then all of a sudden you’re asked to throw, potentially pitch - maybe not - but not have any access or ability to really stick to your routine.
“Once that’s over, it’s like right back into it. Bullpen, day off, game. I just know that little lapse, for whatever reason, it pushed me back a bit. It started making my arm hurt. My arm felt good before that, then it was like after that, it just didn’t feel right. I’m glad at that point I kind of tried to put my pride aside and say ‘Hey, I want to be there in the end.’ So we just had to get it right. No point in pushing through it. I’m glad it worked out that way.”
In his career, Strasburg has three times been selected to participate in the Mid-Summer Classic, but only pitched an inning in the 2012 edition. Even with the brief arm issue last summer - he spent from July 27 to Aug. 29 on the disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right arm - Strasburg enjoyed a dominant second half, posting a 6-1 record, 0.86 ERA and 0.814 WHIP in 10 starts, which included a streak of 34 consecutive scoreless innings.
That means all of the hard work Strasburg put in last offseason - when he incorporated long-distance running into his workout regiment in his hometown of San Diego - and his move to pitching exclusively out of the stretch paid tangible dividends.
Working out of the stretch took some getting used to, but quickly seemed like it made a big difference for the right-hander.
“I mean the results were better, but I can’t really control the results,” he said. “I think it benefited me most by just being more consistent to home plate. It opened up different ways to attack guys. There was guys who kind of had my number. Facing them again, giving them a different look, kind of showed me that maybe I was doing something that was giving them an advantage. I don’t know whether it’s something they see with me tipping my pitches or my timing to home plate. There’s a variety of things. But I think as a pitcher, you have to focus on what you can control, and that’s doing everything you can to keep them off-balance.”
The stretch worked, and seems like it’s here to stay. Asked if he would continue to pitch out of the stretch, Strasburg said: “”Why not?”