Holding baserunners was a focus for Stephen Strasburg throughout the winter and spring as he prepared for his fifth major league campaign. Washington's 25-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick listed his pickoff move and time out of the stretch as two of his top priorities for his offseason workouts.
"Work on the pickoff move," Strasburg said at NatsFest in January. "Work on time out of the stretch. Work on commanding the fastballs both sides of the plate, sinkers more so, both sides of the plate too. Just trying to take that next evolution. Trying to get more complete."
Last night in D.C., burgeoning base-stealing legend Billy Hamilton (16 SB) provided the latest test for Strasburg in the first game of the Cincinnati Reds' three-game series in the nation's capital.
Hamilton reached base in three of his first four plate appearances, walking in the third and singling in the fifth and seventh innings after he popped out on a bunt attempt in the first. Hamilton stole his 16th base in the top of the seventh inning after lining a 96 mph 1-2 fastball to center field.
He stole second with Skip Schumaker at the plate and took third on his teammate's groundout. With Brandon Phillips at the plate, however, Hamilton got picked off breaking for home plate when he tried to take advantage of Strasburg's decision to pitch out of the stretch to the Reds' second baseman.
"I thought about it and I was either going to go out of the stretch or go out of the windup," Strasburg told reporters after the game. "And I said, 'If he decides to break then I can just throw it home any time out of the windup.' I just want to make sure my stuff was there for [Brandon] Phillips. He's a good hitter and he knows how to get his RBIs, so it just helped me out by taking the bat out of [Phillips'] hands."
"[Strasburg] went to the wind-up," Nats' skipper Matt Williams explained when asked about the sequence of events, "and as soon as he went to the wind-up, as soon as he starts his motion then Billy broke. So once [Strasburg] lifts his leg he can go as quickly as he wants to to the plate. And I think [Hamilton] was certainly anticipating him being slower to the plate than he was and we ended up getting him.
"In that situation -- I would prefer with him on third base -- he's got the ability to try to steal home, but Stras did a nice job of quickening to the plate and delivering the pitch."
The kind of speed Hamilton brings to the basepaths forces opposing teams to make all kinds of adjustments.
"You do what you can," Strasburg said. "He's probably one of the fastest guys in the game. He's going to get his stolen bases but as long as you focus on the hitter and make sure the guy in the box doesn't get a hit where he can first to third or even score from first, that's the big thing."
Williams said it's not just the pitchers who need to adjust.
"The adjustments that are made in the infield," he explained, "certainly the corners are in when he's at the plate because he does bunt a lot and he does run well, and certainly when he gets on base he's disruptive. It's no secret that he can steal bases so we have to try to limit that as much as possible. The secret is to keep him off base."
Hamilton's speed pressures everyone on the field and it led to one of the two runs the Reds scored in the first nine innings of last night's fifteen inning marathon.
Strasburg hit shortstop Zack Cozart in the first at bat of the fifth. After Cincinnati starter Mike Leake bunted the runner over, Hamilton hit a weak grounder to short that Ian Desmond pocketed after realizing quickly he had no chance of throwing Hamilton out at first. Desmond tried to fake Cozart out and catch him off third instead, but didn't have a play there either. Skip Schumaker singled in the next at bat to drive Cozart in for a 2-0 lead after seven.
"The ball that Hamilton hit to keep the inning going, Desi had no play on," Williams said. "That's what speed does."
It also helped Hamilton in the outfield. The 23-year-old made a diving catch on a low liner to center off Anthony Rendon's bat in the fourteenth to strand what would have been the winning run on third. It was one of many opportunities the Nationals, who were 2 for 18 with runners in scoring position in the 4-3 loss, were unable to cash in on.
"We had opportunities tonight," Williams said, "and certainly Hamilton's play off the ball [Rendon] hit was a great play, so... but those opportunities are out there and we had them tonight we just didn't come through."
• We talked about Strasburg, Hamilton, Matt Williams and more on the latest edition of Nats Nightly: