Strasburg's enigmatic season continues to baffle

Strasburg's enigmatic season continues to baffle
July 19, 2014, 12:15 am
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If you wanted to pick one start that seemed to epitomize Stephen Strasburg's season, this might well have been it.

Strasburg was dominant at times Friday night, striking out nine Brewers while walking only one. Yet he was done in by a couple of home runs and a key, 2-out, 2-run single that ultimately left him taking a 4-2 loss and fielding more questions about what went wrong than what went right.

"Just missed my spot on a couple of pitches," he said. "Kind of just how the ball drops, you know."

That's kind of how the ball has been dropping all season for Strasburg, who remains something of an enigma. In some respects, he has never pitched better: His strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is down, he's throwing more innings than at any previous time in his career. And in other respects, he has never pitched worse: Opponents are piling up hits off him, especially off his fastball.

The end result is a 7-7 record and 3.55 ERA despite a league-leading 158 strikeouts and only 27 walks over 132 innings.

"For Stephen, I think it's fastball command," manager Matt Williams said. "The home runs were fastballs where he didn't want to throw 'em. With any club, especially a club like this that hits a lot of balls over the fence, you can get in trouble that way. But when he does have fastball command and spots his fastball, then everything else works off of that."

Strasburg didn't entirely agree with Williams on that point, citing not so much his fastball command as his diminished fastball velocity.

For the season, Strasburg's heater is averaging 94.4 mph. That's down nearly 1 mph from last season and down more than 3 mph from his blow-you-away rookie season in 2010. Perhaps not surprisingly, opponents are hitting .304 against his fastball this year, compared to .244 last year and .216 his rookie year.

"Velocity has been down a little bit, but that's something that happens," he said. "I'm not too worried about it. I think it's starting to pick back up, which is good."

Strasburg suggested the diminished velocity has been a byproduct of his offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. He's a full eight months removed from that relatively minor procedure, but he noted that teammate Drew Storen didn't regain his full velocity after his similar surgery in 2012 until late in the season.

[RELATED: Strasburg, Nats come back sluggish from All-Star break]

"Just talking to Drew and stuff, kind of with the surgery that he had, it was kind of similar," he said. "It feels great and everything, but it takes a little bit of time to get it back. Not saying that it's gonna be triple digits, but I think with the mechanical adjustments I've made working with [pitching coach Steve McCatty], it seemed to help me feel a little more comfortable out there, especially early innings where I can just let it go."

Though the two homers belted off Strasburg on Friday — Scooter Gennett in the first inning, Khris Davis in the second inning — stood out, it was Aramis Ramirez's 2-out, 2-run single in the third that proved the difference in the game. It came on a 96-mph fastball, up and in, with Ramirez managed to get just enough of the bat on it to bloop the ball into shallow right field in front of a charging Jayson Werth.

"They hit a couple of solo homers, but that's not the one that got us tonight," Williams said. "The one that got us, he made a good pitch on Ramirez, and he hit a ball into right field with guys on second and third. If he gets that out, it's a different game."

So it was that Strasburg was left to contemplate another outing that felt like less than it could have been. He struck out nine. He walked only one. He threw 70 of his 98 pitches for strikes.

Yet he wound up on the losing end once again in a season that has been hard to explain.

"Maybe I'm throwing too many strikes," he said. "Maybe I need to be a little more effectively wild."