Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale

Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale
September 8, 2012, 5:12 am

The Nationals have insisted for more than five months they can win without Stephen Strasburg, and over the course of 3 hours and 44 minutes Friday night, they tried their darndest to prove that in the most tangible way possible.

After watching their young ace get torched by the Marlins for five runs in three innings and exit his final home start of the season earlier than anyone could have anticipated, the Nationals came storming back to send this game into extra innings and nearly pulled off one final, improbable rally in the bottom of the 10th.

In the end, they couldn't quite complete that rally, stranding the tying run on second base and the winning run on first base when Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth struck out in succession against Miami closer Steve Cishek.

So the biggest takeaway from a wild, 9-7 loss proved to be the manner in which Strasburg's 2012 D.C. finale played out and the manner in which the right-hander, his manager and others tried to explain what exactly happened.

"To be honest with you, I think he was thinking too much about the decision of what we were going to shut him down," Davey Johnson said. "And he kind wore it like it. ... I think he wasn't focused as much on the game as he was on the impending shutdown. Just he way I read it."

Strasburg, who has been reluctant all along to discuss the Nationals' precautionary plan for him, insisted the pending shutdown had nothing to do with his substandard outing.

"No," the right-hander said. "I just don't think I pitched well."

On that point, there is no dispute. Over the course of three laborious innings, Strasburg was tagged for five runs on six hits and three walks, serving up two homers and needing 67 pitches just to reach that juncture.

Whatever the reason behind it, Strasburg's issue was obvious: He couldn't locate his fastball. He either threw it early in the count for balls or grooved it down the heart of the strike zone, as was the case on both home run pitches.

Rather than tempt fate, Johnson decided to pull the plug after only 18 batters, sending up Corey Brown to pinch-hit in the bottom of the third and Zach Duke to pitch in the top of the fourth, much to the astonishment of the crowd of 28,533.

Perhaps more astonishing were the revelations offered by the manager about his young hurler afterward, with Johnson saying Strasburg is "having trouble sleeping, thinking about letting the guys down," and adding he'll need to address the matter in the coming days.

Strasburg, meanwhile, saw his innings count tick only slightly upward to 159 13 in 28 starts, though his season really can be broken down into two parts.

Early on, he was absolutely electric, blowing away opposing lineups nearly every time he took the mound. In 17 starts before the All-Star break, Strasburg was 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA, allowing more than three earned runs only twice.

Since then, he's been wildly inconsistent. He still puts together dominant outings, such as Sunday's six-inning gem against the Cardinals. But his rocky starts have become more regular, with opponents scoring at least four earned runs in four of his last 10 appearances.

"Well, I feel like it's been pretty good," he insisted. "I have a couple bad starts, but you know, I'll take a couple bad starts over the course of a year any day."

By the most basic measurement, Strasburg actually has been the least effective member of the Nationals' rotation since the All-Star break; his 3.73 ERA trails Ross Detwiler (2.79), Gio Gonzalez (3.05), Edwin Jackson (3.47) and Jordan Zimmermann (3.67).

None of this has taken Mike Rizzo by surprise. The Nationals general manager, who ultimately makes the decision when Strasburg will be shut down, has seen plenty of previous pitchers deal with inconsistencies in their first full season back from Tommy John surgery. And he acknowledges he's seen those telltale signs from Strasburg over the last two months.

Rizzo has said all along he won't base his decision on any one start, but on the patterns and tendencies he spots with his scout's eye. But what do the Nationals do moving forward, especially if they're concerned Strasburg is letting the shutdown affect his performance?

"Same thing we always do," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We go to the bullpen. We talk about it every day: You gotta stay focused, pitch-by-pitch. That's what we do. Pitch-by-pitch, hitter-by-hitter. Stay focused on what you do."

Strasburg has been slated to make his final start of the season Wednesday in New York. Would Friday's abbreviated outing make the Nationals reconsider the plan at all?

"It might," Johnson said in highly cryptic fashion.

Whatever ends up happening, it was clear Strasburg did not want this to be the final image of him for 2012, trudging off the mound after only three innings, unable to pitch his team one step closer to its first-ever division title.

Strasburg often talks about the lessons he tries to take from every one of his starts, good or bad. So what he he hope to learn from this one?

"Let it go, and just focus on the next one," he said. "I just didn't really have it tonight."