Zuckerman: Strasburg Labors In Return From DL

Zuckerman: Strasburg Labors In Return From DL
August 11, 2010, 4:16 am
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Wednesday, August 11, 12:15am

By Mark Zuckerman

The number of legitimately poor starts in Stephen Strasburgs pitching career, even dating back to his junior year at San Diego State, is minuscule. Without question, it can be counted on one hand, maybe even with the thumb and pinkie excluded.

So Tuesday nights clunker by the Washington Nationals rookie -- he was roughed up by the Florida Marlins for six runs in 4 13 innings -- was a shock to everyone in attendance at Nationals Park and throughout the baseball world.

Once it was obvious, though, that Strasburgs right shoulder had nothing to do with this performance, attention could be shifted away from the pitchers physical state and toward his mental approach to what just happened. And if his few past struggles are an indication of how he handles these things, the Nationals should rest easy and expect a big-time, bounce-back outing when Strasburg re-takes the mound Sunday afternoon against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Hes a competitor, pitching coach Steve McCatty said. He expects a lot out of himself. I know hes going to be angry at himself. But this is a learning lesson for him. Youve got to learn from your failures. Thats how you get better.

Since turning pro last summer, Strasburg had been hit around by the opposition only twice: Once in the Arizona Fall League when he served up three homers in 2 23 innings, and once this season at Class AA Harrisburg, when he allowed four runs and six hits in 4 23 innings.

Both times, he returned to the mound five days later hungry for revenge and blew the competition away. In Arizona, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning. In the minors, he moved up a level to Class AAA Syracuse and tossed one-hit ball for six innings.

Speaking after the first rough start of his big-league career Tuesday night, Strasburg sounded less concerned about his performance than determined not to let it happen again. Asked if an outing like this rattles him a bit, he responded: No, thats not the word. It doesnt rattle me at all.

Strasburg knows what he did wrong against the Marlins: A bit rusty and a bit anxious after a 19-day layoff due to that tight shoulder, he was more obsessed with fixing his mechanics than he was with simply pitching the ball the way he always has.

Im a little disappointed in myself, because I really went out there not focusing on the one thing that youve really got to focus on in every other start: Just going out there and competing, going with what you have, he said. I spent the whole time worrying about trying to fix what was going wrong, instead of just letting it go and just throwing the ball.

It was obvious from the beginning Strasburg was out of sync. He needed 23 pitches to get through five batters in the first inning, served up a two-run homer to Dan Uggla on a misplaced, 98 mph fastball and at one point threw nine of 12 curveballs for balls. He went to a 2-0 or 3-0 count six times in his first four innings.

Not one pitch felt like I controlled it, he said.

His rookie already restricted to 90 pitches because of his DL stint, manager Jim Riggleman pulled the plug three batters into the fifth, after Gaby Sanchez roped the Marlins fifth extra-base hit off Strasburg.

He just wasnt sharp, Riggleman said. His velocity was good. The angle on his breaking pitches was good. But he just wasnt throwing it for strikes.

This was the first time Strasburg had faced a big-league opponent for the second time -- he held Florida scoreless for six innings July 16 at Sun Life Stadium -- and that may have played a role in the outcome.

We saw him once before, said Marlins rookie right fielder Mike Stanton, who doubled off Strasburg in the fourth. We were a little ready, knew what he had and knew what we had to do. That was probably the biggest difference.

Strasburg may get another shot at the Marlins before his season is complete. If he remains on schedule, hell be slated to start August 31 in Miami and surely will take the mound that night remembering this performance.

Of course, before that happens, Strasburg returns Sunday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the memory of this laborious outing fresh, the lessons from his first rough start in the big leagues learned.

Strasburg hasnt faced this scenario too many times in the past. But his small track record does suggest hell come out firing this weekend.

Weve raised the bar very high for Stephen, and maybe unfairly, Riggleman said. But I think hes going to be fine. Hell be better next time out.

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.