Stephen Strasburg is struggling with his command early in his outings so far in 2013. He did again against the Atlanta Braves this week. In the first inning this year, opposing hitters have a .379/.455/.448 line against the right-hander with more runs scored (7 ER) than in all the other innings he's worked combined (6 ER in innings 2-through-7). Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson was concerned with more than Strasburg's command after his last start in Atlanta's Turner Field, however, as he explained after the loss to the Braves this past Monday night.
"That was a tough one, but the main thing," Davey Johnson said, "I was a little concerned about Strasburg. He always has a tendency to shake his right arm -- and him being wild and whatever, I talked to [Steve McCatty], 'Have you talked to him? Because he doesn't look right to me?' And he's still throwing the ball real hard, but I told [McCatty] after he went out in the sixth, 'Get him out of this inning and we'll get you out of there and get you a win.'"
Johnson went on to say that Strasburg had been experiencing a little tightness in his forearm and had seen the team doctors after the start. When the pitcher talked to the press afterwards he said nothing about any discomfort.
"I couldn't throw strikes early on," Strasburg admitted, but he fought on and continued. "I was able to kind of battle through it and keep it close."
The Nationals' starter did manage to do that. In spite of his struggles, he stayed out on the mound for six innings of work in which he gave up six hits, four walks and two runs and he ended the night on a high note, striking Braves' slugger Justin Upton out with a full-count fastball in the fifth and then striking out the side on 13 pitches in the sixth in what was still a 2-2 game when he left.
But he'd been under the microscope throughout the outing with ESPN's Rick Sutcliffe, who called the national broadcast of the game, among those wondering about Strasburg's actions on the mound. And it wasn't just the normal shaking of his arm. "Strasburg’s rolling his shoulder like he can’t get it loose . . . that would concern me if I were the Nationals,'" the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell quoted Sutcliffe wondering aloud during the game. "'I would come out right now with the trainer,'" Sutcliffe said, "'If there’s nothing wrong, then let’s not be doing that anymore.'"
Strasburg dismissed the idea that his actions, like his tendency to shake out his arm, were a sign of problem. "You just try [to] stay loose and stuff," Strasburg said, "Look at any pitcher, it's not like they're standing out there like robots. So, you know, everybody's going to be moving around trying to stay loose."
As for any talk of a possible forearm issue causing him to miss a start, Strasburg dismissed it forcefully and immediately that night.
"I'm not missing my next start. I'll tell you right now," the right-hander said.
"Did they send you for tests after the game?" a reporter asked.
The Nationals' PR rep ended the questioning there. Strasburg didn't answer. The Nationals' starter rolled his eyes and laughed to himself as he walked away from reporters.
"What a joke," Strasburg said.
Once again, his health and concerns about his arm had become the topic of discussion.
Before that post game interview ended, the 24-year-old Nats' starter had acknowledged the early inning issues with his command against Atlanta. "Yeah, I smoked the umpire in the first AB," Strasburg said, "you don't want to go out there and do that." As for determining what the issue was and why a pitcher with exceptional control continues to struggle to locate his fastball at times?
"I was pulling the ball," the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick said, "Can't really say why I'm having a tough time right now in the first inning, but I am, so just got to keep grinding and figure it out."
As for what changed when he got things going late and dominated with the same mid-to-high-90's heater he'd previously struggled to command, Strasburg said, "I felt like I was getting on top of the ball and driving it down in the zone. And when I get that feeling all of my pitches kind of fall into place."
The Nationals had Strasburg's arm checked out after the start. What Davey Johnson initially described as "tightness" in his forearm was labeled "irritation" after he saw the team's doctors and Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo explained that it didn't have any connection to the pitcher's surgically-repaired right elbow. "Stephen's fine," Rizzo told MASN's Julie Alexander the day after Strasburg's start in Atlanta's Turner Field. "He had a little irritation on the posterior side of his forearm, the opposite side of the ulnar nerve and the Tommy John ligament, so he's fine and he's going to prepare for his next start and pitch Saturday against Pittsburgh."
An electrical impulse machine was pointed to as a cause of the irritation and the pitcher threw a side session without incident after the concerns were raised. That hasn't stopped the speculation. In his "Rumblings and Grumblings" column on Friday afternoon, ESPN.com's Jayson Stark wrote that the, ".. real issue with Stephen Strasburg has very little to do with that 'tightness' in his forearm," Davey Johnson mentioned. Mr. Stark referenced scouting reports from opposing teams which said that they had noticed issues with Strasburg's delivery:
"Scouts and other teams have been talking for weeks about how Strasburg has been falling off to the first-base side, a product of an upper body and lower body that are way out of sync."
"'Something's going on,'" a scout told ESPN's Mr. Stark, "'I'm not saying he's hurt. But he's going to get hurt -- put it that way -- if he keeps throwing like he's throwing.'"
So once again this afternoon in Pittsburgh's PNC Park, where Strasburg makes his seventh start of the season, the focus of the entire baseball world will fall on the mound every time he takes it as people look for signs of an issue with the right-hander. Will his early-inning command issues surface again? Will there be signs of discomfort? Will he be falling off toward the first base side at the end of his delivery? Just when the pitcher thought he was finally going to be allowed to just go out and pitch after the hype of his first season and scrutiny of his "innings limit" campaign last year, Strasburg's health and concerns about his once-in-a-generation arm are once again the big story.
• Strasburg's 2013 Stats: (1-4), 6 G, 6 GS, 37.1 IP, 3.13 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 3 HR (0.72 HR/9), 12 BB (2.89 BB/9), 36 Ks (8.68 K/9), 1.21 WHIP.