The sort of start Stephen Strasburg had last Friday night was expected. He'd struggled at times in his minor league rehab starts and thrown a lot of pitches early in some outings in the Nats' system and in the majors. Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson had told reporters a few weeks earlier that he'd gone back and looked at the starts Jordan Zimmermann made late in 2010 to try to get some idea of what to expect from Strasburg when the 23-year-old right-hander threw a few foundation-building innings this September, a year after having sugery to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
"I've looked at [Zimmermann's] history," Johnson said, "What he did the first year after and how many starts he had and how many pitches he threw. He threw a really good ballgame the first time out, and then he had a couple days where he threw a lot of pitches and only went three innings. I'm not using that as a guide, but I wanted to see if maybe coming back from that injury he'd have a tired arm quicker. But I'll go by what I see Stras gives me. But I did want to look back at what Zimmermann went through."
Strasburg threw 38 pitches in the first inning on Friday night, gave up four hits and two runs, an unearned one scored on an error by Ryan Zimmerman, and the Nationals trailed 3-0 before they stepped to the plate."He got a little excited and really started over-throwing, not pitching," Davey Johnson told reporters later that evening, after the Nationals had dropped a 7-4 decision to Atlanta in which Strasburg took the loss. "He was having a little trouble stepping back and, he just got pumped up and he was just throwing the ball, not pitching and it was pretty obvious. He settled down and was better, but early on it was amped up and normally he can control that. He just couldn't get it back under control. He was too hyped up."
Told about his manager's comments and asked if he'd indeed been too amped at the start, Strasburg said simply, "Yep." And that resulted in him leaving pitches up? "Yep." But as Strasburg explained it, "If you're not amped up to go out there and pitch in front of a bunch of people, against another team then you're playing the wrong game."
"I left some pitches up," Strasburg said after the game, "If I got the ball down they would have been ground balls, but they put them in play and got the job done." Strasburg wouldn't blame the struggles on the condition of the mound, however, when asked if it was an issue. "No," he said, "There's going to be nights like this where it's a little slick, but [Braves' starter Tim] Hudson had to deal with the same thing out there so, you can't let that bother you."
Had facing a team in the Braves in what the manager would later describe as a playoff atmosphere been what had gotten the pitcher so excited? "Probably," Johnson said, before telling reporters that he'd spoken to Strasburg and, "... had that conversation with him a couple times about just going down there and just relaxing and [letting] what happens happen, try to pitch and spot your pitches rather than muscle, but I think the moment kind of got him geared up and it was kind of hard for him to settle back down."
"I'm amped up every game," Strasburg explained as he spoke to reporters following the start, "but sometimes it takes a little bit longer to find a groove, and typically, the first inning for any pitcher you kind of [have] to get settled and feel your pitches and they scored some runs off me before I was able to do that." Strasburg did settle down after the first, throwing an 11-pitch 1-2-3 second, a 13-pitch third in which he allowed just a one-out single and a 13-pitch 1-2-3 fourth that left the right-hander at 75 pitches, 46 of them strikes with five hits and three runs (2 ER) allowed in 4.0 innings.
"That was not typical him" Johnson said, "He was throwing more than he was pitching and his location [isn't] as good when that happens and like I said he came out and later in the ballgame and was talking about it."
According to Johnson, Strasburg's pitch selection wasn't typical either. "He threw some decent changeups, 90 mph changeups," Johnson said, "but he didn't mix in his curve ball much, didn't pitch very much with his offspeed stuff, it was more him throwing. But he came out of it fine, so it was a good day."
"I've been there before," Strasburg said, "[given] up runs in the first inning before, it's nothing new, so the game is about making adjustments, and [I'm] happy that I was able to do that the next three innings, and unfortunately with the pitch count that I have I wasn't able to go back out there and make it a quality start."
"I was going to let him go into the 80-pitches range," Davey Johnson explained in discussing the decision to end Strasburg's night after four innings and 75 pitches, "... but I thought he settled down and pitched pretty good." "It's definitely tough," Strasburg said when asked about not having the freedom to continue pitching under the strictures that have been placed upon him this year, "but I know there's going to come a time where they're going to let me stay out there longer and if I give up three runs in the first and put up zeros the rest of my start I'm going to be happy."
"That's the bottom line," Strasburg concluded, "I'm really not focusing on the numbers, I'm trying to help this team win some ballgames and bottom line, I want to go into the offseason healthy." The Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick will make one more start tomorrow in the final game on the 2011 schedule and the final game in the history of the "Florida" Marlins. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who won a World Series with the Marlins in 2003, will be behind the plate as he was in Strasburg's MLB debut.
It might be the last time the Future Hall of Fame catcher catches the phenomenal young pitcher Pudge once compared to Nolan Ryan. It will be Strasburg's 11th start of the year, and will put him at about 45.0 to 50.0 innings when you throw in his simulated outings in Florida, all of which is meant to prepare him for 2012, when he'll be pitching on an innings limit, but finally back on the way to getting a promising career started.