Coming off a 2016 campaign that ended prematurely when he suffered a torn pronator tendon in his right arm, Stephen Strasburg, who missed out on an opportunity to pitch in the postseason for the second time in Washington’s three appearances, had one goal in mind.
“I was frustrated at the end of the year not to be there with the guys and that’s kind of my big motivation going into this year,” Strasburg explained.
“I don’t want to miss any more time. I’m not saying that’s not going to happen. There are some times you’re going to get hurt and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I’m going to continue to try to figure out this puzzle and hopefully this next year I’ll have a better grasp on what I need to do to stay healthy.”
Strasburg landed on the Disabled List from late July to mid-August this season, with a nerve impingement in his right elbow, but he returned to the Nationals’ rotation and remained on the mound through the end of the regular season, posting a 0.84 ERA, with 10 walks, 63 Ks, and a .171/.221/.219 line against over that stretch, then he made two postseason starts in which he was dominant.
In two outings against the Chicago Cubs, Strasburg gave up three walks, picked up 22 Ks and posted a .128/.180/.149 line against in 14 IP, with just two unearned runs total scoring while he was on the mound.
The second start, in Game 4 of the NLDS, was, of course, not without controversy as Strasburg, who was dealing with flu-like symptoms, was originally passed up with an initial explanation (that he was under the weather) which left the baseball world once again questioning the right-hander’s make-up.
There weren’t many asking those same questions after the 29-year-old, ‘09 No. 1 overall pick tossed seven scoreless on the mound in Wrigley Field, striking out 12 batters (out of 25 faced) on the way to a season-extending 5-0 win.
“It was a challenge,” Strasburg said after the game, in discussing everything that led up to him taking the mound.
“It seemed like once we got here, you know, I got hit pretty hard with this virus. You know, it just seemed to suck the life out of me every single day.
“You know, they got me on antibiotics and just wasn't really working or anything.
“Luckily they switched it yesterday and in just the hopes that it would kind of kick in.”
It did. Strasburg woke up the next morning feeling good enough to go and went out on the mound, dominating the Cubs to keep the season alive
“I called Mad Dog in the morning and said, ‘Just give me the ball.’ That's what he did.”
“He had everything going on tonight,” Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon said after watching Strasburg dominate Chicago’s hitters.
“If you don't get him early in the count, it's really difficult because he has these two other outstanding pitches to throw deeper in the count, curveball, changeup, which he did.
“The last time we played him, we tried to jump him early but we didn't have a lot of success in Washington, either. He's pitching absolutely at the top of his game right now. That is really good stuff; give him credit.”
“He had everything working tonight,” Nats’ skipper Dusty Baker added in his own post-game press conference.
“He had a great changeup. His fastball is always good, good slider; and like I said, he looked very, very determined. The only time I asked him anything was at the end of the seventh because he had 105 pitches.
“You know, I knew he was running out of gas because he's been -- you know, he's been sick. But fortunately for us, it was a cool night, you know, for him.”
In the end, Strasburg said, the sickness might have ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“I think my energy wasn't really like through the roof, so I think it was easier for me to manage it.
“So you know, I just focused on one pitch at a time and going as long as I could.”
Strasburg finished the regular season (15-4) in 28 starts, with a 2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 47 walks (2.41 BB/9), 204 Ks (10.47 K/9), and a .203/.265/.317 line against in 175 1⁄3 IP.
He limited his use of his slider (6.8%, down from 17.1% in 2016), as he said he would after believing it led to his issues last season, increased his curveball usage (from 12.6% to 22.5), and leaned on his changeup (13.1% in 2016 to 18.9%), holding opposing hitters to a .111 AVG on the change in 2017.
In his final start of the season, against the Cubs, Strasburg threw 32 changeups total, 23 for strikes, 21 of them strikes not put in play, generating 15 swings and misses on the pitch.
“The changeup was spectacular,” Maddon told reporters after Game 4.
Strasburg said he just had a good feel for the pitch, so he was using it more often than he normally would.
“I mean, if it's working, you want to lean on it,” he explained. “Yeah, I mean, I know that it's a pitch that's a weapon and as long as I can get into certain situations to use it to certain guys, I know it can be effective.
“There was just a lot of those situations tonight.”
When he started the 2017 campaign, Strasburg said he wanted to be there to help the Nationals when it mattered, and he was, helping to keep the season alive for at least one more game, though they weren’t able to beat the Cubs in Game 5.
In the end, not a bad start in the first year of the 7-year/$175M extension he signed in May of 2016.