Throughout the Spring and then again before his Opening Day start on April 1st, Washington Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg talked about a desire to go deeper into his outings this season. "I haven't gone over 7.0 innings yet in my career," the 24-year-old right-hander told reporters. "I know in the past when I've been allowed to do that I feel like my game has gotten better later on in the game and I think there's -- the hitters change their approach later in the game, and it's going to be interesting to see how the game changes in the later innings when you're still out there because I still haven't experienced that yet."
Because it was the first game of the year, and because he was being cautious, Davey Johnson pulled Stephen Strasburg after 7.0 innings and 80 pitches on Opening Day even though the 2009 first round pick was cruising through the Miami Marlins' lineup.
Strasburg went seven innings in two of his other seven starts this season, but before tonight's game in Petco Park, he'd never gone beyond the seventh inning in any of his first 53 major league outings. After seven innings against the Padres, the San Diego, California-born, San Diego State University-educated pitcher was at 107 pitches overall, but with the Nationals ahead 6-2, the Nats' skipper made the decision to send his no.1 starter back out.
"I think, at times last year I let him throw 125 pitches," Johnson told reporters after tonight's game. "And I don't worry too much about the pitch count, only last year I worried about it because of the innings limit. But he was fine."
The manager sent pitching coach Steve McCatty to check on the starter after seven and see if he was good to go for the eighth. "I had 'Cat' talk to him," Johnson said, "said, 'Make sure he's all right,' and he said he was fine. I was going to give him a short leash. I didn't want him to throw 130 pitches just to get eight innings in." Strasburg needed just ten pitches to get through the inning, giving up a two-out walk to Chase Headley before retiring Yoder Alonso to complete the longest out of his career.
Strasburg's Line in start no.9: 8.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 4 Ks, 117 P, 68 S, 13/5 GO/FO.
"I felt great. I'm just glad [Davey] let me go back out there and get the monkey off my back," Strasburg told reporters after the win, which broke of a streak of seven straight starts in which he was winless and (0-5). "Hopefully I can get more experience getting deeper into a ballgame like that and get used to it."
Strasburg was still throwing hard in the eighth, with a 93-95 mph fastball in his final inning of work. The '09 no.1 overall pick responded to the challenge and finished strong in his longest start yet. He also dealt with adversity tonight a lot better than he did last time out in the nation's capital.
Strasburg dominated Chicago through four innings in his eighth start of the year, but a two-out error in the fifth started a rally by the Cubs that resulted in four runs crossing before the Nats' starter completed a 42-pitch frame after which he was lifted. The Nationals' manager wasn't happy with Strasburg's reaction to the error and he said so after the loss.
"He's certainly capable of picking us up when somebody else -- it's a team effort, you know," Johnson said, "and errors are part of the game."
In the fifth inning tonight in San Diego, Ryan Zimmerman, who'd committed the error in D.C., made another one, with one out this time, throwing high to second on the 5-4 part of a potential 5-4-3 DP and pulling Steve Lombardozzi off the bag to load the bases with one out in what was then a 5-0 game. A groundout by Padres' shortstop Everth Cabrera scored the Padres' first run, but Strasburg struck Will Venable out on three pitches for the third out of the inning, limiting the damage and picking his team up in the way Johnson hoped he could have after Zimmerman's error against the Cubs.
As Davey Johnson noted after the Nats' win over the Padres, however, it was a different situation when Zimmerman made the error tonight. "I thought he just stayed more focused," the manager explained. "We were in a pretty good position and he made pitches when he had to. That's more like him." The Nationals had a 5-0 lead tonight, last time it was 0-0 after four before Strasburg's rough fifth. "It's one thing when all of a sudden you make an error and you lose the lead or you get a bigger deficit to pick up," Johnson said, "But we had a nice little lead and he was right on."