In his last three starts, the "Hot Stuff" start vs San Diego, the "bicep tightness" outing against the O's and the control-challenged game against Atlanta, 23-year-old Nats' right-hander Stephen Strasburg has seen his ERA go up a run from 1.64 on May 10th, after he struck out 13 on 103 pitches in 6.0 IP against the Pittsburgh Pirates, to 2.64 tonight as he prepares to take on the Braves for the second time in seven days. In those last three starts and 14.1 IP, the '09 no.1 overall pick has allowed 17 hits, 11 runs, nine earned, seven walks and two home runs while recording 19 K's. When Strasburg faced the Braves last Saturday in Turner Field, the Nationals' starter surrendered more walks (4) than he has in any start since his second major league outing against the Cleveland Indians back on June 13, 2010 when he walked five.
Strasburg threw just 95 pitches in 5.0 IP in Atlanta. After the outing Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters he wasn't sure what was causing the pitcher's struggles. "Stras for some reason didn't have control of his fastball," Johnson told reporters after the game, "Or was afraid to throw it over. I even looked up there one time and he had more balls than strikes. Wasn't his day I guess. He's usually picking us up, but we picked him up today." Strasburg threw a fairly uneventful 11-pitch, seven-strike opening inning against the Braves after the Nats gave him a 1-0, then struck out Dan Uggla (who's hit Stras well in his career - 6 for 8, 2B, 2 HR's after the last game) to start the second after the Nats scored three more off Braves' lefty Mike Minor in the top of the frame.
In the Braves' second, Strasburg gave up a walk to Eric Hinske and back-to-back singles by Jason Heyward and Juan Francisco, with Francisco's hit driving in the the first of two runs Strasburg allowed in what ended up being a 30-pitch, 17-strike second. In the third, the right-hander issued back-to-back two-out walks before an Eric Hinske groundout ended a 22-pitch inning. A leadoff walk and single in the first two at bats of the fourth were followed by an unproductive pop out and a lucky-bounce, inning-ending DP, but Strasburg's 14-pitch inning had him up to 77 pitches after 4.0 IP. Strasburg got the first two outs of the fifth as well before giving up a two-out single by Martin Prado and Uggla's second career HR off Strasburg, which tied the game at 4-4.
"I wish I could say," Davey Johnson responded when asked for an explanation for why Strasburg again appeared uncomfortable on the mound. "He didn't seem to have very good command with his fastball. His changeup, I mean at one time he threw four changeups in a row to the third baseman [Juan Francisco], so I just don't think he had a good feel for his fastball. I mean, he was throwing good and hard and whatever, but sometimes you get where you can't locate your main pitch. I've never seen it happen with [Strasburg], but there's nothing physically wrong with him. I think he ended up with  pitches and saved an inning, which may help us later on down the road."
"He's going through a stage in the season where he's not commanding the baseball like he's accustomed to," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained on the most recent edition of 106.7 the FAN's The Mike Rizzo Show with Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier, "And this is the big leagues, and when you don't command it and you don't have everything going well, you're not at your best. The guys who can pitch well and grind out victories when you don't have your best are your consummate winners and those are the guys who can put 20 wins under their belt and Stras has shown the capability [to] do that."
In spite of his "issues" on the mound in recent starts, Strasburg does enter tonight's game with a (5-1) record, the 13th best ERA in the NL, the fifth best FIP, the third-best xFIP, second-highest K/9 (10.86 to Gio Gonzalez's 11.53 K/9), and seventh-best WAR. Not bad for a struggling pitcher in his first full-season back following Tommy John surgery, but maybe not what people have come to expect from the '09 no.1 overall pick.