It’s easy to typecast Craig Stammen’s entire approach to baseball by his personality - easygoing kid from Ohio, with boyish good looks and attention to manners, overcomes low profile with hard work and climbs all the way to the majors.
You’ve seen that character in a thousand feel-good sports movies. You can even write your own version of the clichÃƒÂ©d script - (Grizzled high school coach, watching pitcher work on back fields as the sun goes down): That kid’s going to have to fight for everything he gets. (Cuts to pitcher throwing to dusty backstop as crickets chirp, with light strings playing in background): But he’s going to make it, and nobody’s going to see him coming...
It’s too easy. And it’s not true.
In real life, Stammen is a fitness freak, a gifted pitcher that thrives on competition and might have a little too much adrenaline for his own good. His back story is straight out of central casting, but his game is more complex than that - and at times, it’s gotten him in trouble.
Stammen won a spot in the Nationals’ rotation out of spring training by outpitching everyone in camp other than Stephen Strasburg. He dazzled coaches and scouts alike with a sharp curveball, a fastball that had been revived by elbow surgery and a confident mound presence. The Nationals had seen little of that in Stammen’s first two outings, and after he allowed seven runs in 1 1/3 innings in Philadelphia last week, he sought out a mentor - Livan Hernandez.
The pair had a heart-to-heart last week, and Stammen responded on Monday with one of the best outings of his short professional career. He allowed two runs in eight innings against the Colorado Rockies, winning for the second time this year as the Nationals beat Colorado 5-2.
It was Washington’s first win over the Rockies since August 2008, and improved the Nationals’ record to 7-6.
“He was just outstanding,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “He was a pitcher tonight. He wasn’t a thrower.”
Stammen hadn’t been that way in his first two outings this year. He won his first one despite some mistakes against the Phillies, who flattened Stammen’s mistakes last week in a 14-7. The problem was the same one Stammen had early in the spring; his arm was feeling so good, he made the mistake of thinking he could throw the ball by hitters, rather than let his two-seam fastball and two breaking pitches work for groundouts.
For all of Stammen’s renewed strength, he still tops out around 93 mph on the radar gun - not enough to overpower anyone. When he’s going good, he resembles a right-handed John Lannan, and in some ways, a younger Hernandez.
Here’s where our story enters sports-movie kitsch again: Stammen and Hernandez - the veteran who barely throws over 85 mph anymore but who has mastered pitching’s intricacies and started the year with 16 scoreless innings - talked last week in Philadelphia. Hernandez reminded Stammen about the importance of simply locating his fastball, favoring locating over brawn, and told him to back it off a little.
Stammen recalled something Hernandez, a scratch golfer, had told him in spring training when they were playing a round together: Like baseball, golf sometimes treats you the best when you keep your aggressions in check.
It was a simple message, but it was just enough to get Stammen righted.
“I like to talk about pitching,” Hernandez said. “We’re not going to be perfect all the time, but we try.”
The way Stammen threw on Monday night was a reminder about the kind of charge he can put in the Nationals’ rotation when he’s on. He spotted his fastball well early, turning first to his slider and changeup as the Nationals took a 3-0 lead on Willie Harris’ second homer of the year, and introduced his curveball last, striking out five batters in eight innings.
He got some defensive help from Ian Desmond and Adam Kennedy up the middle, and though the Nationals left the bases loaded in the second and third innings, they maintained a three-run margin into the middle innings, when Stammen started to cruise.
“When you’re young, you learn real quick that 100 percent isn’t always the best,” Stammen said. “My arm felt so good that I was just letting it fly. And that felt good, but it wasn’t getting any results. Watching Livo do it at like 85 percent really puts you back a little bit. You watch how he pitches, and try to emulate that as best you can.”
Hernandez said Stammen, a 12th-round pick in 2005, probably has the best stuff on the Nationals’ rotation. Many baseball people would share that opinion, though it hasn’t been evident at many points yet this year.
The little moments like the one Hernandez and Stammen had in Philadelphia last week, though, are sometimes the ones players recall years later. Nothing that was said was profound or novel. But it resounded.
“I needed any little extra tips I could get,” Stammen said. “Livo’s Livo. He’s really relaxed and calm. Sometimes it’s better to be calm than so intense and fired up out on the mound.”