With twenty scoreless innings over three starts to end the regular season and a 1.13 ERA over his last five outings and 32 innings pitched in September, surely Stephen Strasburg, who talked earlier this season about working his way back to 100% after offseason elbow surgery, is feeling as good as he has since his right elbow became an issue again at some point last summer?
"You have a couple good games and everybody starts talking about that and you have one bad one and they're all questioning what's going on? So I try not to worry about that too much. I just want to go out there and be the same guy every day."
Nationals' manager Matt Williams said Strasburg was, "... as good as he's been all month," on the mound in the next-to-last game of the regular season and the 26-year-old right-hander's 34th start.
"Really good fastball, 96-97 mph, changeup and curveball to go with it and throwing it where he wanted to, so just the same as he's been for the last four or five starts, really good."
"My arm felt good," Strasburg said. "Just went out there and tried to execute pitches. Changeup was working really well and I threw my curveball for strikes when I needed to."
Asked about the uptick in velocity on Strasburg's fastball, from 94-95 earlier this season to 96-97 where it is now, Williams said he thought it was a result of increased confidence on the mound as much as anything else.
"I think when he's throwing the ball where he wants to then he lets it go," Williams explained. "When he's not then he tries to throw it, you know, on the corner and it's not quite 96 or 97, but when he feels good about it, then that's what you see. You see that fastball ramp up which causes the changeup to be better and the breaking ball to be better, so I think it's a matter of confidence and a matter of him feeling good about where he's throwing it and then he can just rear back and let it go."
With increased confidence, velocity and command, Strasburg's back to dominating opposing hitters.
"I think that he's using both sides of the plate," Williams said, "which is key for him. And being able to command [the] fastball. We've talked about that all season too. Fastball command at 97 [mph] is a pretty good pitch in and of itself and then when you can add the other ones that are fantastic pitches, then he's pretty devastating and [it's] difficult to pick a pitch to hit if he can use both sides. The ability to throw the breaking ball behind in the count or first pitch of an at bat to get a strike, all of those things work to his advantage."
Strasburg said he couldn't really pinpoint a particular moment when things clicked for him and it all came together this season.
"It's tough to say," he admitted. "I think just as the season went on I got more comfortabtle out there executing pitches and I learned a lot just watching guys do their thing in-between starts and just working with [Steve McCatty] in the bullpen, so it's been a good learning experience."
As for what exactly he's learned?
"Just executing pitches. Moving the ball around. Pitching to both sides of the plate, and just reading hitters, reading what they're trying to do against you."
Williams was asked if the prospect of pitching in the NLDS was behind the late-season surge by the Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick.
"It's important," he said. "It's important for him and I think his September is an indication of that.
"As we discussed before the game, he feels great. His strength is good. He's throwing the ball where he wants to, making pitches when he needs to, it's typical... of what we've seen all year long, so, I think he's pitching really well, he's ready for next week."
He said "next week" of course, rather than a specific day, because as Williams explained once again after the Nats' win on Saturday, he hasn't named the starter for Game 1 of the NLDS.
"We haven't made that decision yet. We have Jordan [Zimmermann] pitching tomorrow, and we'll get through that and find out who we're going to play after that and then we'll make a decision."
Strasburg is ready to make his postseason debut whenever it is.
"I'm really excited and I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing and give it everything I have," he said.
"Just keep doing what you're doing, that's all you can do."
Through thirty-four starts, he's now (14-11) with a 3.14 ERA, a 2.94 FIP, 43 walks (1.80 BB/9) and 242 Ks (10.13 K/9) in 215 IP. He'll be back on the mound, most likely in the nation's capital, in less than a week.