All of Stephen Strasburg’s out-of-the-box talents - his electric stuff on the mound and his eloquent dissections of his performances afterward - can give the impression that the 23-year-old has skipped to the front of the developmental line. And in large part, he has.
But baseball is a game built to teach its youth through mishaps seared into the brain, and Strasburg simply hasn’t had many of those. It’s easy to forget that while Brad Peacock was toiling in the New York-Penn League, playing his second season of minor league ball, Strasburg was just breaking onto the national scene as the only amateur on the Olympic team.
He’s been able to skip through so many of baseball’s setbacks because of his innate abilities and tenacity, but every once in a while, the game still pops Strasburg in the jaw. Friday night, with Strasburg on the mound for the first time against a team in a pennant race, was one of those times.
Strasburg needed 38 pitches to get through the first inning. He allowed four hits, giving up three runs after Ryan Zimmerman let a ball go through his legs. Running on even more adrenaline than usual, Strasburg started overthrowing. His fastball came up in the strike zone, and he spent nearly half of his allotment of 80 pitches in the first inning. He settled down beautifully in the next three innings, but the Nationals’ strict regimen for him this year won’t allow him to make up for long innings.
His night - four innings, three runs (two earned) and 75 pitches - was ultimately an exercise in managing a new situation.
“(Tommy) Milone and Peacock have had years of experience pitching in the minor leagues, so when they come out here, now, boy, everything looks great,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “They’ve learned situations, how to control themselves. Stephen’s had a big spotlight on him, but he got here quick. It’s just something he has to learn to do.”
Fifty-eight of Strasburg’s 75 pitches were fastballs; that kind of a ratio can make his changeup and curveball, which are already plus pitches, even more effective. But his high-90s four-seamer, when it’s up in the zone, is probably also his most hittable pitch, and Strasburg was rushing his delivery early as he tried to sting the Braves’ playoff hopes.
“I was just trying to slow down,” Strasburg said. “I’ve been there before. I’ve given up runs in the first inning before. It’s nothing new. The game’s about making adjustments, and I’m happy I was able to do that the next three innings. Unfortunately, with the pitch count that I have, I wasn’t able to go out there and make it a quality start.”
In the future, Strasburg will have enough leash to throw 100, 110 pitches. That kind of a limit would have allowed him to pitch into the fifth or sixth inning on Friday, and might have prevented Collin Balester from working the middle innings, where he gave up another three runs. But in his first few starts back from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg’s only goal is to stay healthy and get back to some normalcy.
Unfortunately for him, normalcy in baseball is sometimes a humbling thing.
“He just got pumped up,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He was just throwing the ball, and not pitching. That was pretty obvious. Normally he can control that, but he just couldn’t get it back under control. He was too hyped up.”