On verge of Nats record, Strasburg continues to build

MIAMI - Right-hander Stephen Strasburg gets the ball today in the Nationals’ series finale against the Marlins at Marlins Park.

With one inning pitched today, Strasburg will match left-hander Gio Gonzalez for most innings twirled in Nationals history.

That is 1,252 1/3 innings since 2010. Strasburg is five wins away from 100 for his career. He has 210 starts with the Nationals, three away from Gonzalez’s franchise mark of 213.

Strasburg-Pitch-Gray-Citi-Field-sidebar.jpgAt 30, Strasburg pointed out during spring training that he is the longest-tenured starter in the National League East. In his 10th season, with one of those years abbreviated after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has been through a career of thrilling moments: a season shutdown, four division crowns, three All-Star appearances, a third-place finish in National League Cy Young voting, NL strikeout king honors in 2014 and even a Silver Slugger in 2012.

So when he looks back at where he started from when he first arrived in D.C., does Strasburg see a difference? Is he still as hard on himself after a tough outing as he was in those early pro days?

Strasburg told me that intensity and drive to get better each day paved the way to San Diego State in 2007 and still fuels him today.

“That’s what got me from not being drafted at all out of high school going into college with no given role and really not any sort of notoriety or reputation, just working my tail off to get where I’ve been,” Strasburg said. “I continue to work as hard as I can to get better.”

Strasburg says the fuel for that drive has changed a bit as he matures. He doesn’t take a home run allowed here or a loss there to cloud his purpose for the long haul of a season: Find a way to help his team win the next game he pitches.

“If you’re a perfectionist like myself you have to really learn to be patient and you have to really look at those types of adversity and failures and successes within the game as opportunities to learn and grow,” he said.

“You’re very rarely going to be perfect in this game, so I think you really have to focus on what your approach is, and how you’re going to respond to make sure that what just happened doesn’t affect the next pitch.

“Those are the things that I really focus on and take pride in, is that when you (have) things that don’t go your way, how are you going to respond? Are you going to dig deep and reach back for more, or are you going to let that play kind of fester and annoy you, distract you from what your priorities should be when it’s all said and done? Baseball pitching is once the ball leaves your hand, it’s really out of your control. If you are a control freak it’s kind of hard to come to grips with that.”

Strasburg: Mentally stronger

April 16, 2019: Strasburg allows three homers in a 7-3 setback to the Giants. His record stands at 1-1. Afterward, he was not happy with giving up the longballs, but he understood that sometimes the professional hitters on the other side are going to run into one or two. He looked at his watch to see what the date was: April 16. After 200-plus starts with the Nats, he is not going to panic this early in a season.

“It’s easier said than done because we are all humans,” Strasburg said about tough starts like that one last Tuesday. “Over the years you develop more of an awareness for it. Subtle cues out there that can build and build and build. It’s important to remember that it is a long season, and it’s a long career as well.

“The nature of the game is that it’s always who’s hot now, who’s not. Everybody wants to say ‘Oh, this guy’s going to win the Cy Young this year,’ and we are two weeks in, or it’s like, ‘This guy is going to win MVP.’

“When you’ve experienced it enough times you start to realize that all that stuff’s there, and I think there’s a lot of talking points, but for what I want to accomplish and what I expect of myself, those things are going to fall where they may. But looking back on the career and the last outing, last pitch I threw, I just want to know that I was in that moment and giving everything I had.”

And that is the focus that makes Strasburg who he is mentally as a pitcher. That mental maturity is what is different about the Strasburg of today versus the 20-year-old firing 100 mph fastballs and looking for a strikeout every at-bat.

His teammate is 34-year-old Ryan Zimmerman. The first baseman has been with the Nats longer than Strasburg has. He was a third baseman when Strasburg arrived. When Strasburg was handed his jersey for the first time in front of the crowd at Nats Park, it was Zimmerman who did the honors. Zimmerman sees that maturity in the 2019 version of Strasburg, built from all the battles of the past 10 seasons.

“The best way to explain it is I think he understands the process a little bit more,” Zimmerman said. “He’s going to have, hopefully, 30 some starts. He has matured to the point where you (can’t) kill yourself over every bad start or every bad pitch. That’s why you play such a long season, because things average out.

“I’m sure with a pitcher it’s same as a hitter: You are going to have times where you are not doing that well, then you really have to grind it out. Those are the ones that make you a good player, because if you can somehow get through those as a starter, grind out five, six innings on those days when you don’t have anything ... He’s just starting the last couple of years to understand the process a little bit more and not be on an emotional roller coaster, just staying steady and doing the work and preparing. At the end of the day that’s all you can really do anyway.”

Strasburg said having all this experience of the ups and downs of past seasons to fall back on helps him when he has a start like he did April 16. He reminds us it’s just start four of the season.

“It’s like, hey, don’t reinvent the wheel, just focus on the process, you focus on taking the ball every fifth day and the numbers are going to be what they’re going to be,” Strasburg said. “But once you start trying to change what makes you successful off of a couple of outings here or there, that’s when you kind of get into this mode of just searching. And the search will last forever if you try it (that way).”

Strasburg the pitcher

So, has the drop in fastball velocity - down from 97-98 mph to 93-94 mph, touching 95 mph - put pressure on Strasburg to change?

No, because Strasburg does not just throw fastballs. He still has that lethal curveball, changeup and slider-cutter. Now it’s the mix.

“You always got to work on making adjustments,” Strasburg said. “There could be a longer span of not doing the same thing, but really it just comes down to execution of all your pitches, being able to do different things with it and expanding the zone with it when you need to, and throwing it to both sides of the plate. That’s pitching. That’s kind of the art of it, making the ball do what your mind wants it to do.”

Zimmerman said the velocity is not always going to be there, so he sees how Strasburg has made those adjustments to mix it up.

“He’s been around for nine, 10 years. You see that with all these pitchers,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody really throws 97, 98 mph all the time. Velocity is always going to go down as you get older, but I think he’s learned how to pitch in that 93, 94 mph range and realizes. If he was to need it he could kind of bump it up a little bit. He’s matured a lot mentally and it’s fun to watch.”

Manager Davey Martinez noticed the adjustments Strasburg made down the stretch in 2018, and that has carried into what we see today. But Martinez said Strasburg’s velo is trending up with each start this year. Strasburg was clocked at 94.9 mph against the Giants.

“He’s learned how to pitch, especially after last year,” Martinez said. “His last five starts last year his velocity was really down, and he pitched. And this year every outing his velocity has gone up. Last time he was out it was 95 mph. And that’s a good sign, so (when) he finds that consistency with the velocity and how he wants to pitch I really believe you are going to see the Strasburg that you’ve always seen.”

Like Zimmerman, veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki knows about where Strasburg has been and where he is now. Suzuki caught Strasburg in 2012 and noticed a difference in the right-hander when he returned to the Nationals in 2019.

“He’s become more of a pitcher,” Suzuki said. “He understands the process. He understands the executing and all that kind of stuff. He’s not just trying to go out there and throw 100 mph. He’s learning how to pitch. He’s learning how to spin the ball better. Everything is just a process that is coming together.”

Strasburg said one reason he is open to adjustments as a pitcher is that he can listen to his coaches and his teammates. He is not so stubborn that he will not change to get better. Strasburg believes that sets him apart.

“I consider myself very coachable, and I don’t think that’s the case for many guys,” Strasburg said. “You have to be willing to listen. Maybe not apply everything that you hear, but be willing to listen.

“A lot of the greatest athletes of all time, their ability to play and be in the moment on a consistent basis and focus on the task at hand is what separates them from everybody else. It’s easier said than done, but it’s always something to be working for, and those are things that you can control.”

Strasburg the veteran

Strasburg-Young-vertical.jpgI showed Strasburg a picture of a poster from MASN’s television studios of his first season with the Nats in 2010. Strasburg chuckled a bit and smiled, remembering how he was back then and where he is now.

“It dawned on me a couple of years ago when you see the teams that you are facing, other pitchers that they have, they’re gone,” Strasburg said. “I remember one of my first times in Philadelphia, that was back with Cole Hamels was one of the guys, it was Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. You just look at that and it’s like, who’s there now? It’s just crazy, it really is.”

Has Strasburg relaxed a bit after all these years to the point where maybe he is not as hard on himself when things don’t go perfectly and he gives up multiple homers? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean he still isn’t a fighter out there on the mound.

“(There’s) the competitor in him still,” Suzuki said. “He still gets fired up. Which is a good thing. You definitely don’t want to lose that. You want to keep that fire. Maybe just quickly calming himself down when something like that does happen. He’s learned how to move on from things a little faster. It still bothers him, but he’s able to move on faster.”

“He’s been here a long time,” Martinez said. “He gets it. I saw a difference in him in spring training. He was very loose. You see him smile a little bit more than you have in the past, and that’s good for him. He deserves that. He knows what he needs to do. He’s an unbelievable competitor. He just wants to win. He wants to help us win.

“He’s kept us in games. But he’s always trying to look to get better, and he will get better as the season goes on, I know. We count on him to be just as important as Max (Scherzer) or (Patrick) Corbin. He’s one of our guys. I want him to go out and have fun. I spent this winter talking to him about just, ‘Hey, do what you can do. There’s 24 other guys on our team who got your back,’ and I think he gets that.”

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