Stephen Strasburg tossed six strong innings against the Dodgers in LA in May, giving up a total of four hits, two walks, and two runs in a 6-0 loss, but he went seven innings in D.C. in late July, holding Dodger hitters to a run on two hits in an 11-4 win.
“When he mixes all his pitches,” Davey Martinez said after Strasburg’s second start against the NL West division winners, “... and today his fastball was really, really good, and he had good movement on his fastball, but when he starts mixing in all his pitches like that and he’s able to throw them for strikes whenever he wants, he’s tough, and he competes and you’re up there as a hitter and it’s a tough at bat for anyone.”
Martinez talked after that outing about Strasburg’s curveball, against which hitters had just a .162 AVG on the season, and why it was such a weapon.
“It’s a sequence that stands out more than anything the way he’s been using it,” the second-year skipper said.
“He’s not afraid to throw it. A lot of times I’ve seen him throw it in 3-2 counts, and throw it for a strike, and that’s kind of nice, so at any given moment, as a hitter, when you have to say, ‘Hey, this guy can throw a curveball, a nasty curveball, in any count, it puts that second-guessing in your head, and he’s been able to do that all year.”
Strasburg threw his curve more than he ever has before this season, 30.6% of the time, up from a career average of 21.3%.
“It’s a pitch I’m really confident in throwing and throwing anytime,” Strasburg told reporters in his pregame press conference after he was named the starter for Game 2 of the NLDS.
“I guess you would say you just, sometimes you’ve got to look at the data and maybe lean on it a little bit more than you have in the past. I think there comes a point in everybody’s career where you don’t have the fastball that you can just blow by guys all the time, so you have to learn how to pitch a little bit more.”
Strasburg’s manager was asked after announcing that Strasburg would go on short rest in Game 2, after throwing three scoreless in relief on 34 pitches in the Nats’ Wild Card win on Tuesday night, how he’s seen the 2009 No. 1 overall pick develop in their time together in the ninth and tenth seasons of his 10-year MLB career.
“I’ve seen him, hey, this year Stephen, for me, even though he’s had unbelievable years,” the second-year skipper said, “he’s come into his own, not just as a player but as an individual, as a teammate, he’s all in. I’ve seen a change in him.
“I’ll just tell you this, we celebrate, we do a lot of dancing, and I would never [have] thought in my mind I would ever see Stephen Strasburg dance. He’s been dancing and his dancing is getting a lot better. And he kind of leads the whole dance party now so it’s kind of fun.
“But he’s been great. I think that I always mention this because last year he came back off of injury and his velo wasn’t as good as it used to be and it bothered him a little bit. And we talked a lot about just learning how to pitch. Now you got to learn how to pitch. Your stuff is so good, you just got to pitch. I think that helped him. September last year it helped him become what he’s doing right now. His routine, I say this all the time about his routine, his routine is unbelievable. I mean he works diligently. Everybody sees him the fifth day, but every day before his start, he works like a madman to get himself ready.”
Martinez also had an up-close look at Strasburg the last time he pitched in an NLDS game in 2017, when he went up against the Cubs when Martinez was still Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Chicago.
Strasburg had two unearned runs score when he was on the mound in Game 1 of the series, and he gave up just two hits and a walk while striking out 10, then he came back in Game 4 of the series, with the season on the line, and tossed seven scoreless, striking out 12 on the road in Wrigley Field to keep things going for one more game before the Nats lost in Game 5.
“Yeah, just an unbelievable, fierce competitor,” Martinez said when asked what, if anything, he remembered from Strasburg’s dominant second outing against the Cubs.
“I can remember that one game in Chicago, one of our players came back after he struck out, and he said, ‘This is going to be a long day.’ I thought, ‘Oh, boy, that’s not good.’ Sure enough, it was ... I mean that’s the kind of stuff Stephen has. He wants the ball. The big thing now is he wants the ball. I talked to him yesterday when we got in, asked him how he felt. He goes, and I said, ‘Well, I would love for you to go Game 2, but if you think you need your five days, I get it, I understand. We can push it back.’
“Today he came in, without hesitation he says, ‘I want the ball. I’m ready to pitch. I feel great.’”
“You just get a good night’s sleep,” Strasburg said in discussing how he determined he was good to go.
“Obviously we had a late game there in DC and traveling yesterday and just get a chance to recover a little bit.”
Strasburg recovered from flu-like symptoms to take the mound in Game 4 in 2017, though he said he wasn’t sure what he could take from that outing and apply this time out.
“I’m not really sure. It’s an amazing experience and highlight of my career. Still the same person and I try and be the same person from the first time I stepped on a baseball field.”
Strasburg too was asked how he thought he’d developed and changed since he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.
“Yeah, it’s kind of what you would expect playing nine, ten years at the highest level,” he said. “You have ups and downs and I think you learn to manage them a little bit better. Just realize that at the end of the day when it’s all done how do you want to look back on it? And really, it’s going out there and doing everything you can to be the best version of yourself.”
And how has he handled the expectations that came with being a No. 1 overall pick, who was talked about as a once-in-a-generation talent?
“Yeah, you realize that the expectations are always going to be there and I think it’s pretty obvious that the expectations that people had for me from early on were a little insane. And I think you just become more comfortable with yourself, more comfortable with the results, and you set yourself to your own standards, and those are always going to be more important than what others think you should be doing.”