Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty stood just outside the entrance to the coaches' office in Nationals Park's home clubhouse on Tuesday night, fielding one question after another about the one subject on everyone's mind: How would Stephen Strasburg respond after his first outing where an opponent dictated when he left a game?
It's a pertinent question, even if there were those in the home clubhouse who would say it's not a fair one. Strasburg is a 22-year-old rookie, yes, but he's a phenomenon, a curiosity. So the first time he gets knocked down, there are going to be a few more people who turn and look, like the kid who pulls a B in calculus class after getting straight As his whole life.
Strasburg's 4 1/3-inning, six-run outing in the Nationals' 8-3 loss to the Marlins registered as his worst outing of 10 in the majors, by far. It could mostly be chalked up to rust and overexcitement (he hadn't pitched in 19 days after going on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation), and an aggressive lineup that pounced on Strasburg's flat fastball.
But it also was the gateway to a new process - how he responds to adversity in the majors. That's as interesting as anything Strasburg has done in a while because it humanizes him, and exposes him to something he hasn't felt nearly as acutely as most big-league rookies: failure.
"Like you, I really haven't seen him have too much adversity so far," McCatty said, his voice tinged with curiosity. "I'm just kind of taking this one in stride and seeing how he reacts."
The best news of Tuesday night, by far, was that Strasburg felt strong. His fastball touched 100 mph, and he said he still felt strong when manager Jim Riggleman puled him after 84 pitches. But Strasburg's four-seamer was flat, drifting up in the zone and away from catcher Ivan Rodriguez's targets, and his control of his changeup and curveball wavered. He said he didn't have command of any of his pitches, and caught himself thinking through mechanics from time to time on the mound.
"I'm a little disappointed in myself," Strasburg said, "because I really went out there not focusing on the one thing you've got to focus on every other start, just going out there and competing and going with what you have. I spent the whole time worrying about trying to fix what was going wrong, instead of just letting it go and throwing the ball."
He is already working off a new fitness program between starts, designed to improve his flexibility and keep his arm in shape. But that's not where the crucible will be focused before Strasburg's next start on Sunday.
Will he pore over video of his start, looking for flaws to correct, or expunge it from his memory? Will he take out his frustrations on Arizona, or set up a mental divider between this start and his next one? McCatty is as interested as anyone else to see where Strasburg takes this experience.
"This is a learning lesson here, especially for young guys," McCatty said. "You've got to learn from your failures. That's how you get better. If you can cruise through everything, and you're that good that you don't have any failures, well, more power to you. But you're going to have some failures in there, and you've got to learn from them."
McCatty regards failure as the protein by which big-league pitchers are built. It's why he quickly recalled a story about John Lannan, who shot from Single-A Potomac to the majors in 2007, and admittedly learned nothing from the experience, because everything came so easily.
He wove that story about Lannan into something of a sermon about where Strasburg goes from here, why it's important that the prized rookie walks through this.
"When you're going good, it's so easy," McCatty said. "You're just out there, you throw your glove on the mound. But when you have that game, struggle, you've got to look and say, 'What did I do wrong?' It's not always mechanics. Maybe it was the wrong pitch. Maybe it was the wrong location. Then, you start breaking it down. And I think he's going to come back fine. He expects so much out of himself, that sometimes it's a little harder for him. We all expect a lot out of him, too. So his games that he struggles, we tend to go a little bit overboard. But the kid's actually been pretty doggone good so far. If he has this one game out of 10, I'll be pretty happy with it."
Strasburg is a supreme competitor, quick with an intense stare or a stern response for a hitter who shows him up or a reporter who asks a question not to his liking. McCatty, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and manager Jim Riggleman all mentioned the dizzying expectations placed on Strasburg, some by the Nationals but more by those outside the clubhouse.
But it's tough to imagine anyone's standards being higher than the ones Strasburg imposes on himself. How he handles the next four days might be one of the more compelling storylines of his otherwise placid rookie season.
"This is the first time in the relatively short career that I've had where not one pitch felt like I controlled it," Strasburg said. "Just chalk it up to a learning experience, go out there, compete and not worry about things too much next time."