After an efficient 56-pitch, 40 strike, 5.0 inning outing against the Dodgers on Tuesday, in his first major league start in over a year following Tommy John surgery, Stephen Strasburg started Sunday afternoon's game with the Houston Astros with a long 31-pitch first. Astros' batters fouled off nine fastballs and stretched the 23-year-old right-hander out to what would end up being more than half the number of the pitches he would throw in the game. The Astros also scored a run in the first on a two-out RBI single to center by El Caballo Carlos Lee.
Astros' infielder Matt Downs singled off Strasburg to start the second, but Houston's 7-8-9 hitters went down in order after that in a 15-pitch frame by the Nats' right-hander that had him at 46 pitches after two. Strasburg was back at his 11-pitches-per-inning pace in the third, retiring the Astros in order in what would end up being his final inning of work on Sunday. Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson pinch hit for Strasburg in the bottom of the frame, sending Nationals' outfielder Corey Brown to the plate where he K'd for the final out of the inning.
"I guess you want to know why I hooked [Strasburg] so quick?" Davey Johnson asked before any reporters had a chance to in tonight's post game press conference. "It's really pretty simple," the Nats' Skipper said, "No.1, he threw a lot of pitches [in the] first inning. I think he threw in the 30's, maybe 31, 32, 33 somewhere in there. He settled down. He was actually feeling better. [He] actually had a 70-pitch limit on him and I was a little concerned."
"In the second inning his velocity dropped a little bit," the Nationals' manager explained, "I think it was because it was hot out there, but I explained to him, I said, 'Look, I don't want to go out and have to hook you during the inning, and as far as I'm concerned it's like your second time out in Spring Training, pitching in big league camp, and that's enough. You're not going to go 5.0', and then it even turned out more the right decision because we were in their hitting a long time."
Strasburg's response? According to Davey Johnson, the right-hander asked incredulously, "Just 3.0?" to which the manager responded, "Yeah, just 3.0. But I expected that."
"The more we get into this," Johnson said, "I really don't put a lot of stock in the number of pitches. It's more whether he labored in the inning, because I think that puts more stress on the pitcher than the number of pitches if they're kind of level going out, so that was my reading." The Nationals' manager said the heat was a problem for Strasburg, who said he was just starting to feel good when he was lifted after three innings, and with the long delay that followed as the Nats knocked Astros' starter Henry Sosa around, Johnson believed he made the right decision.
"With the long delay, you can stiffen up a little bit," Johnson told reporters, "Being that it was hot out there, you're sitting [in the dugout] where it's a little cooler... to me it's another good outing. I know everybody wants to see him go 5.0 or 6.0 or something, but I was very pleased with his delivery and everything that I saw."
Strasburg's 4-seamer sat around 95-97, with his two-seamer 92-94, but Johnson said he wasn't concerned about the slight drop in velocity from last time out.
"I never really watch it that much," the Nats' skipper explained, "[Pitching Coach Steve] McCatty was over there like [the] mother hen he is having a heart attack, wanting to run out there and I said, 'There's nothing wrong with 92.' The one time I think the radar gun got stuck and stayed on 92, and he threw another one, but he had a pretty good changeup, and he looked fine, but I think the reason he didn't throw hard during the second inning was because of the temperature. A little hot."
After the long first, Johnson said Strasburg, "...was in a nice groove. I thought in the second and third...that's why I don't put a lot in velocity, because when he's hitting his spots, he's tough, and with the variety of other pitches he was breezing after the first." Strasburg's next start is scheduled for next Saturday at home in D.C. against the visiting Florida Marlins. Before that it's four with the New York Mets for the Nats, starting tomorrow night at Citi Field. Not Strasburg's best outing, but not a cause for concern either according to his manager. Strasburg's line: 3.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 K's, 57 pitches, 39 strikes, two groundouts, two flyouts.