Davey Johnson blamed himself for some of the things that went wrong, but he told reporters he didn't regret sending Stephen Strasburg back out for the sixth inning of his 19th start of 2012 in last Friday night's extra-innings loss to the Atlanta Braves. "His pitch count was such that I felt comfortable with him going six," Johnson said. The Nationals led 9-0 at that point. Strasburg, who had given up four hits in 5.0 scoreless innings before letting the Nats' NL East rivals back in the game, had thrown 85 pitches, however, walking three and striking out five, so he wasn't likely to go past the sixth.
The 24-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick threw eighteen pitches, gave up a leadoff single, a two-run home run, another single and a one-out double before he was lifted, leaving two runners on, both of whom scored when reliever Michael Gonzalez gave up a two-out, two-run double by Martin Prado. Strasburg's line: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K's, 105 pitches.
Strasburg went to three-ball counts with two batters in the first, but retired them both, giving up just a two-out single on a first-pitch fastball to Jason Heyward. He started behind Freddie Freeman before giving up a leadoff double on a 96 mph 2-0 heater in the second, missed with a 3-1 pitch to Dan Uggla for the first of three walks, but stranded all three runners he let on in his first two innings of work. 35 pitches. He missed with a 3-1 fastball to Michael Bourn for a leadoff walk in the third, then walked Heyward when he missed with a full-count curve. Seven pitches and two groundouts later he was out of the inning...
Strasburg got behind Brian McCann and gave up a leadoff double on a 94 mph 2-0 four-seamer in the fourth, but retired the next three batters on nine pitches. Heyward hit a 98 mph 2-1 fastball for a two-out single in the fifth, but two pitches and a Chipper Jones' groundout later, Strasburg was through five scoreless.
"He felt like he was missing," Davey Johnson explained when discussing some of the long at bats after the game, "but I felt like he wasn't going after them. He wasted a lot of pitches. He really doesn't know who he is at times. He doesn't trust his stuff and for him to have... there was a little avoiding contact, trying to make too good a [pitch]. I know they're a pretty good hitting ballclub, but he's got pretty good stuff and having him at 100 pitches in the sixth inning, you know, it was just because the way he used up a lot of pitches."
"Yeah, he came out unscathed," the manager continued, referring the five scoreless in which Strasburg had given up four hits and three walks without letting a run in, "But he threw a lot of pitches and another thing too. When you throw a lot of pitches to hitters they get a better gauge on you, it's easier to hit. You see two or three fastballs missed, it's easier to start gauging somebody. It's a lot tougher when you go right after them and they've got to put it in play. Try to put it in play."
The four runs in the sixth got Atlanta back into the game, making it 9-4 and sparking a comeback in what ended up an 11-10, eleven-inning win for the visiting Braves. Strasburg received no decision in a game the Nationals led 9-0 after five innings.
In his 20th start of 2012, Strasburg threw just 94 pitches total in 7.0 IP this afternoon in New York. He gave up four hits, one a home run on a first-pitch fastball to Ike Davis in the top of the second, but then proceeded to retire 10 of the next 11 batters he faced before a two-out double by Josh Thole in the fifth. The Mets' catcher was stranded four pitches later at the end of a 21-pitch inning that had the Nats' right-hander at 68 pitches overall after five. Strasburg got David Wright looking on the 16th pitch of a scoreless sixth and retired the Mets in order on 10 pitches in his final inning or work in the seventh.
Strasburg averaged 13.4 pitches per inn. today @ NYM, yet fanned 11. No starter in MLB is averaging less than 14 pitches per inning in '12.— Nationals PR (@NationalsPR) July 25, 2012
"He's tremendous. I mean, my gosh. Almighty," New York manager Terry Collins told reporters on SNY after the game.
"That is the Strasburg that I've know for a long time," Davey Johnson beamed, "That's him. That's the way he should pitch. He was very pitch efficient from the get-go. He went right after guys. He's still learning how to pitch in this league. He's got such good stuff and he's got such great publicity, but he's still a work in progress."
Strasburg threw just nine pitches in the first, recording one K. Eleven in the second. Fifteen in the third as he struck out the side. Twelve in the fourth as he added two more strikeouts. Twenty-one in the fifth, with one more K for eight total. He threw sixteen pitches in the sixth, adding two K's and threw ten pitches in the seventh with the tenth a 96 mph fastball that got a swinging strike from Kirk Nieuwenhuis for his 11th K out of the 24 batters he faced in 7.0 IP.
"The way he pitched today," the Nats' skipper explained, "He didn't use a lot of his breaking stuff, just sparingly, and that's the kind of pitcher [he is]. He located his fastball good and when he does that he's capable of going nine innings and there was a lot left in the tank there today, I can tell you that."
"I think it was just attack the strike zone," the 23-year-old starter told reporters after the game, "Don't nibble. And just go out there and make them put the ball in play." Or, "Try to put it in play," as Davey Johnson said after the previous outing.
"Obviously, good pitchers can get through seven in under a hundred pitches," Strasburg said, seemingly having gotten the message from his manager after his last start, "So that was definitely a goal. I didn't want to go out there and just try to nibble the whole time and have a hundred pitches through five."
Though pitching like he did today, the Nats' 69-year-old manager is sure, will have Strasburg going deep into games in the future, his manager's also more likely to be willing to let him stretch it out in the coming years. "Of course, I've been short on his innings this year," Johnson admitted. He has been with all his starters as the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore wrote recently, since his bullpen is strong and the Nats plan to be playing meaningful games right up to the end this season, but with Strasburg of course, there are other considerations in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery.
"This is kind of a strange year," Johnson said, "So I'm going to protect him as much as I can. Enable him to go as far as he can."
The reason Strasburg sometimes "forgets who he is," as Johnson put it, is simple according to the manager. "He's a perfectionist and it's really learning about yourself and knowing that and not trying to be too perfect and that's what he was today."
"When I first saw him in the Olympics," Johnson recounted, referring to the '08 Olympic team which featured Strasburg as the only collegiate player, "I thought he was very mature. Looked like he'd been around for about five years. He stayed on the knees, in and out. Read the hitters. I didn't like when he first came up here. He was overpowering hitters and going up the ladder and throwing 100 mph. That's really more of a thrower-type that was brought out of him because the media hype on it. He's going to get his strikeouts not trying to strike people out. Trying to make them hit it he's going to strike them out."
Strasburg seems to understand the philosophy his manager's espousing, but as he admitted today, it's not always easy to remember it when you're on the mound facing the best hitters in the game in front of packed houses of noisy fans or on big stages in New York. "Once you've got the lights are on, and you're facing another team, I mean, you want to go out there and make your stuff really dirty. It's something where I think when I take a step back and just relax and just let it happen instead of force the issue, it helps out a lot."
Davey Johnson is creating a monster.