ATLANTA — Stephen Strasburg was at a loss for words, despondent, unable — or perhaps simply unwilling — to offer much explanation for his clunker of an outing Friday night at Turner Field, one that left his Nationals teammates in a 7-run hole they still very nearly dug their way out of, falling one more clutch hit shy of perhaps the most-dramatic comeback in club history.
“I don’t know,” the right-hander mumbled. “I felt pretty good. The ball was just up.”
By “up,” Strasburg was referring to the location of his pitches within the strike zone. He might well have meant, though, the location of the ball as it soared deep into the Atlanta night on any one of the career-high four home runs he surrendered during what wound up a 7-6 loss to the Braves.
This might as well have been a miniature example of Strasburg’s 2014 season as a whole, taken to a new extreme. Seven of Atlanta’s first 12 batters reached base against him, three of them homering. Then Strasburg turned dominant for a brief time, retiring seven batters in a row (five via strikeout) only to serve up one final homer to put his team down 7-0.
The recurring theme, as it has been throughout the season: Poor command, especially of his fastball. Strasburg didn’t miss out of the strike zone, he missed within the strike zone, leading to some eminently hittable pitches.
“He’s missing on the plate, not off the plate,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “That was the bad thing today. That’s what I see.”
This was nothing new, of course. Strasburg has been surrendering big hits off poorly located fastballs all year, leaving him now with an 8-10 record and 3.68 ERA. He still leads the league with 186 strikeouts against only 35 walks in 156 1/3 innings, but he is giving up more hits than innings pitched for the first time in his career, and he has surrendered 18 home runs (sixth-most in the NL).
The question becomes: What can he do to address the issue to hand? He offered no solutions Friday night.
“I don’t really know how to work on it,” he said. “Some days, I’m hitting the spot. Other days, I’m a couple inches up. I’ve just got to roll with it, try to miss down instead of miss up.”
The Nationals continue to talk down any overriding concern about the would-be ace of their staff who has not consistently pitched like one.
“You can’t put a finger on anything other than they put a good swing on it,” manager Matt Williams said. “He got ahead of Justin [Upton], he got ahead of B.J., [Upton] and they put good swings on the baseball. Certainly they’re not where he wants them to be, those pitches, but it’s not easy to hit a ball out of the ballpark, either. Just keep fighting them.”
Perhaps the tide will turn and Strasburg will take his game to another level, one so many have long assumed he would reach. But here is the hard truth right now: One hundred starts into his career, Strasburg has been a good, occasionally great pitcher yet still significantly less than he could be, especially in games of increased significance.
Strasburg has now made seven career starts in Atlanta. He has failed to reach the sixth inning in five of those, derailed by a smorgasbord of calamities (heat exhaustion, a strained oblique, an ejection, simple poor performance) while posting a monstrous 6.99 ERA.
He leaves everybody searching for answers, for some reason to explain negative results. Including himself.
“I’m just not executing pitches, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “It feels good out of my hand. I’m just not hitting the spot.”