Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Even at his worst, Stephen Strasburg has been really good.
Over his last three starts, we've seen opposing hitters begin to get to the rookie right-hander just a bit. After allowing 10 hits in his first 19 1/3 big-league innings, he's now allowed 19 hits in his last 17 1/3 innings. And on Sunday, he labored as much as he has in any of his six starts, lasting only five innings against the Mets after reaching a lofty pitch count of 96.
Did New York's lineup -- a veteran group that includes David Wright, Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur -- figure something out about Strasburg? Those batters seemed to work the count more than previous clubs did, leading to a 37-pitch first inning that all but ensured a short afternoon for the 21-year-old.
Actually, the Mets insisted that wasn't the plan of attack going in.
"It was just evident from the start that he wasn't getting ahead," Bay said inside the New York clubhouse after the game. "We were talking about it early that you're doing yourself a disservice if you're just trying to get the pitch count up and he's firing strike one in there time after time. A guy like that, with the stuff he has, that doesn't really put you in a better position. We did a good job of laying off. He didn't have his best command and we did a good job of taking advantage of that. But on the days where he does have his command, I don't really think that the try-to-get-the-pitch-count-up approach is really going to benefit you."
Bay has got a point. As much as it seemed like the Mets were successful against Strasburg, in the end they still only scored two runs off him. This speaks to a larger point about Strasburg: Even when he's not at his best, he's still been pretty darn good.
There have been moments in nearly every one of his starts in which Strasburg showed signs of faltering. And in just about every instance, he found a way to get through it and keep the damage to a minimum.
In Saturday's game, Strasburg struggled through a 37-pitch first inning, walking three and facing seven batters. But he held the Mets to only one run.
"That was huge," Jim Riggleman said. "To throw 37 pitches and only give up one run? It's not easy to do that."
Think about that in relation to other members of the Nationals' pitching staff. What usually happens when Craig Stammen or Luis Atilano or J.D. Martin gets into a jam? It turns into a big inning for the opposition. The only thing that has resembled a big inning against Strasburg so far was the seventh inning in Atlanta one week ago, when the Braves scored five runs (four off Strasburg, three of them earned) and that inning would have played out much differently had Ian Desmond turned that double play instead of booting the ball.
Strasburg clearly had trouble locating his fastball early, and he didn't exactly have a great feel for his curveball or changeup, either. But we saw another important trait about the kid: As the game progressed, he figured out what was going on and figured out how to correct it. And he wound up retiring the last seven batters he faced, on five groundouts, a popout and a strikeout.
So even within what was his roughest start to date, Strasburg still strung together two-plus innings of dominance. Which he probably would have continued had he been allowed to stay in the game longer.
The Nationals, of course, have strict pitch limits on the rookie. So he was pulled at 96 pitches, even though he had cruised through the fourth and fifth, and even though it was still a 2-0 game.
"In the future, that would definitely be a game he would not come out of," Riggleman said. "That's just how we're dealing with Stephen right now."
Unfortunately, that future won't come until 2011. The Nats won't push Strasburg beyond 100 pitches at all this season, so we all must accept the fact he's going to be pulled out of games even when he's on a roll and has plenty more left in his arm.
Six starts into his career, Strasburg finds himself with a 2-2 record, a 2.45 ERA and a ridiculous 53-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's not an All-Star (not yet) but he's already the best pitcher on this team by leaps and bounds and compares favorably with any other pitcher in the big leagues.
Does he still have a few things to learn? Sure. But perhaps the most encouraging sign to the Nationals right now is not the manner in which Strasburg has dominated through his first month in the majors, but the manner in which he has already shown he can dominate even when he's not at the top of his game.
Imagine just how good he'll be with a bit more experience, once he learns how to keep his game in top form with more regularity.