You weren't just imagining that Stephen Strasburg, in spite of the fact that he limited the Arizona Diamondbacks to one hit in six scoreless innings of work, didn't necessarily have the pinpoint control he does when he's at his best. As Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters after last night's 9-1 win, the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old right-hander was dealing with some back pain in his 23rd start of 2012. The television cameras, at least on the D-Backs' broadcast, caught the the Nats' starter stretching uncomfortably between innings on more than one occasion, but Strasburg was able to make the necessary adjustments, pitch through the back issue and hold Arizona hitless through 3.2 IP before an injury delay disrupted his flow.
"[Strasburg] pitched a heck of a ballgame," Davey Johnson beamed afterwards when talking to reporters, "And he was really a little bit under the weather. He had been having a little stiff back and then when he had to make that play at first, he had to kind of stretch for it, it really kind of aggravated it." The play that caused the aggravation took place in the second after Strasburg had issued the first of four walks he gave up last night, this one to Miguel Montero. D-Backs' third baseman Chris Johnson hit a weak grounder toward first in the next at bat that Adam LaRoche handled, but when LaRoche looked to throw to second for the force, Danny Espinosa was nowhere to be found, so the Nats' first baseman had to spin and throw to first where the covering pitcher made the play.
After the play, "It was bothering him," Johnson said, "He was feeling for it, and he said, 'When I just tried to locate, it bothered me, but when I just let it go, I was okay,' so he said, 'I just started letting go.'"
A 13-pitch third followed with Strasburg issuing the second walk of the game before striking Aaron Hill out to end another scoreless frame. There was a delay with two down in the fourth inning when home plate umpire Dale Scott took a foul ball square on the chin, and when action resumed nine minutes later, Strasburg issued the second of two two-out walks and the first hit of the game, a single through the left side of the infield that drove in the Diamondbacks' only run.
The 27-pitch fourth inning pushed Strasburg up to 78 pitches overall, but he came back out and threw a 15-pitch, 1-2-3 5th in which he struck out the side on three-straight backwards K's, and an 11-pitch sixth in which he retired the D-Backs in order to end his night on the mound. Davey Johnson told reporters that he likely would have let Strasburg throw around 120 pitches at this point in the season, "But once I found out, when he aggravated that little stiff back, then he was gonna just go six for me."
Johnson's repeatedly said since taking over on the Nats' bench that he thinks Strasburg's at his best when he's working down in the zone as he did before he made his major league debut and got caught up in the hype of blowing batters away with high heaters that lit up the radar gun, but the manager has said he prefers Strasburg to pitch like he did when he was on the '08 Olympic team that Johnson managed in Beijing. "I knew him when he was an amateur," Johnson recounted, "He just stayed right on the knees, I mean, he didn't go up top and then when he mixes in the changeup, there's no chance. I love to see him when he pitches that way. When he started cutting it loose it was really nasty. But it was a great ballgame. [The D-Backs] have got a fine offense, and he shut them completely down."
• Strasburg's Line: 6.0 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 6 K's, 104 P, 58 S, 7/3 GO/FO.
All the talk of Strasburg's innings limit has distracted somewhat from the fact that the right-hander has been dominant on the mound in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery. After last night's win, the '09 no.1 overall pick is now (13-5) with a 2.90 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 38 walks (2.57 BB/9) and 166 K's (11.21 K/9) in 133.1 IP. More important, for a young pitcher that's had issues dealing with adversity thus far in his career, last night he overcame a stiff back, made the necessary adjustments and dominated the D-Backs to help the Nationals win their seventh-straight game and their 70th game of 2012 overall. Strasburg's 23rd start of 2012 is worth another look: