These are the nights when you see the stuff that separates Stephen Strasburg from your garden-variety triple-digit hurler, if such things exist.
Strasburg could feel baseball’s great denominator, the institutional knowledge of hitters who have started to figure a pitcher out, coming after him. Baseball people call it “the league adjusting to you,” and after the rookie’s last two starts, the sands were shifting underneath him like he was standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in his hometown of San Diego.
The Braves had cracked him for four runs, three of them earned, last month in Atlanta, making Strasburg pay after Ian Desmond missed a chance to bail the rookie out of an inning. And in his last start, the Mets made him throw 37 pitches in the first inning as manager Jim Riggleman placed a call to the bullpen and contemplated an exit strategy for his phenom.
A start that would leave most rookies content - five innings, two runs, five strikeouts - gave Strasburg cause for concern. So Strasburg placed a call to Rusty Filter, his former pitching coach at San Diego State who’s now coaching at Stanford (still apparently unaware he missed his calling as a NASCAR pit crew member), to discuss how to regain command over his stuff. Strasburg worked with Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, and he tossed ideas back and forth with catcher Wil Nieves, seated at the next locker, about once again finding real estate in the land of dominating when he’d been slumming in the neighborhood of merely impressive.
After all those perfectionist tendencies, Friday’s result proved again why Strasburg seems as slump-proof as any young pitcher in recent memory. He surrendered a leadoff homer to Andres Torres and watched the Giants square up fastballs for three long flyouts in the first inning. Sensing the Giants wanted fastballs, he went to off-speed pitches, and put on a clinic the rest of the night.
His six-inning, three-hit, eight-strikeout performance showcased Strasburg at his most commanding, in complete control of all of his pitches and attuned to any sniff of the Giants catching onto him.
“It’s all about making adjustments out there,” Strasburg said. “You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to read the swings. The last few games, they’ve been sitting on fastballs away. And if they’re going to continue to do that, they better get ready to back off the plate, and they better get ready for some stuff to keep them off-balance.”
Again, it’s the heady stuff that makes Strasburg so rare. How many times do you hear 21-year-old pitchers talking about reading swings - or saying they felt confident enough to call their own game, as Strasburg did several times after Friday’s win?
He is an ace gradually losing his baby teeth, showing both the repertoire and the nastiness to be one of the game’s shutdown pitchers.
“He can throw anything at any time,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “That breaking ball, he can throw at any time. I think that’s why he’s real successful. He doesn’t need to throw the fastball when he’s behind in the count. He can throw something else.”
On Friday, with the Giants crowding the plate and sitting on his fastball away, Strasburg decided to start buzzing them inside with high fastballs, pushing 100 mph and crowding hitters’ hands. Aside from opening up the outer half of the plate for his slider and getting them to chase his fastball, it introduces something else - the element of fear.
“It seems like 140 (mph),” Nieves said. “You see a fastball in there, you just want to get away. You’re hoping you don’t get hit.”
On Friday, the Nationals made somewhat official what’s been true almost since Strasburg arrived, effectively calling him their No. 1 starter by announcing he would pitch the first game after the All-Star break. It means he’ll likely face a number of the game’s best pitchers in the second half, though that presented no trouble when the Nationals beat up on All-Star Matt Cain on Friday.
More than ever, though, Strasburg seems ready for it. He’s already been through his first push-and-pull with hitters, and come out of it. What he’s capable of from here has to be as frightening for opponents as it is exhilarating for the Nationals
“I learned a lot tonight. It’s part of the process of becoming a premier major-league pitcher,” Strasburg said. “You’ve got to be able to recognize what a hitter’s trying to do against you, and get them out.”