MIAMI - Stephen Strasburg has faced 134 batters over his last six starts. Only two of those batters have driven in runs.
Way back on July 17 in Cincinnati, Eugenio Suárez hit a solo homer in the bottom of the second against Strasburg. And then Aug. 19 in San Diego, Yangervis Solarte belted a two-run homer in the bottom of the first.
But that’s it. Those are the only three runs Strasburg has surrendered in his last 36 innings. And he hasn’t surrendered any in his last 26 innings, establishing a new club record.
Suffice it to say that the Nationals right-hander is pitching right now as well as he ever has in a career that has featured plenty of dominant stretches on the mound.
Here’s the only problem: Strasburg hasn’t been able to stay on the mound for as many innings as he or the Nationals would have liked to him to pitch, because of a variety of minor ailments.
In that July start in Cincinnati, Strasburg dealt with cramps in his leg, though he was able to go seven innings and throw 105 pitches. Six days later in Arizona, he departed after only two innings due to what eventually was discovered to be an impinged nerve in his elbow that landed him on the disabled list. Strasburg returned four weeks later, but during his Aug. 24 start in Houston he again battled leg cramps in the humidity and was pulled after six scoreless innings and 90 pitches.
And then tonight during a 2-1 victory in Miami, it happened again. Despite dominating the same Marlins lineup he shut out six days earlier, Strasburg spent the fifth and sixth innings favoring his right leg, getting one visit from a trainer and waving him off a second time. After six more scoreless innings on 90 pitches, he again was pulled.
“He threw the ball great. It just came up again,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I don’t know what to make of it, because our trainers are working on it. He’s taking anti-cramping medicine and all that kind of stuff, so I don’t know what to make of it. I’m not a doctor. We just have to make the moves when we have to make the moves.”
Strasburg, who has for years admitted he’s a particularly heavy sweater and has felt the effects when pitching in humidity, insists he has been taking extra precautions to try to prevent this before it happens. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“It just seems like I lose a lot of fluids,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much I drink, it just kind of goes right through me. IVs were seeming to help me in the past, but they weren’t willing to give me one here. That’s just part of it. You have to find a way, and I went as long as I could.”
The issue was noticeable during his final two innings tonight. When his right foot landed in front of the mound on his follow-through, he often hopped off it right away, sometimes reaching down to grab at it. He tried to stretch it out a few times, and in between innings he took fluids in the clubhouse.
Through it all, Strasburg kept throwing strikes and kept retiring batters, preserving what for most of the night was a 1-0 lead.
“I try not to think about it as I’m throwing the ball,” he said. “I try to regroup mentally, and not really try to feel for it.”
If you had no idea Strasburg was feeling less than 100 percent healthy, you’d never know it based on the results. He scattered six singles during tonight’s start, one per inning, never letting any Miami runner reach second base. He issued zero walks and struck out eight, including feared slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
“I mean, if he (was) 100 percent good, I think he (would) throw like eight or nine innings today,” catcher Pedro Severino said. “He’d go complete game again. That situation right there ... he did an excellent job. I try to follow him, what he likes, and give him respect. Because nobody in that situation hurts their foot and wants to keep pitching.”
No matter what he has been dealing with physically over the last two months, Strasburg has performed exceptionally well on the mound. During this six-start stretch, he has lowered his ERA from 3.43 to 2.78. That now ranks fourth in the National League, behind only Clayton Kershaw and teammates Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez. He hasn’t finished a big league season with an ERA under 3.00 since his abbreviated first two campaigns, each shortened by his Tommy John surgery.
“He has great command right now,” Baker said. “He has great command of his fastball, and they’re really not picking up his changeup or his slider. ... Man, he’s throwing the ball great. We’ve certainly got to keep him healthy down the stretch here.”
That, of course, is Strasburg’s biggest challenge over the next four weeks. He has been available to pitch in the playoffs for the Nationals only once in three tries. He now has to figure out how to ensure he’s there for them in their fourth attempt at October baseball.