It is a rare sight to see Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg slump off the mound less than five innings into a game. It has only happened seven times in 38 career starts. One of those came when he snapped the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on Aug. 21, 2010 in Philadelphia, which led to Tommy John surgery and began an arduous 12-month recovery. He suffered heat exhaustion earlier this season in Atlanta. It happened twice last September as the Nats were exceedingly cautious in Strasburg’s first five starts back after his long rehabilitation program.
But Tuesday’s 8-0 loss to the Phillies at Nationals Park? That was just bad pitching. Strasburg’s breaking ball wasn’t sharp, according to catcher Jesus Flores. He left one fastball after another up in the zone, including one in the second inning to No. 8 batter Kevin Frandsen, who last homered in a big-league game in 2007. It was 95 miles-per-hour and left the yard almost as quickly. Strasburg said about the only fastball that went where he wanted it was the first pitch of the game to leadoff batter Jimmy Rollins.
Washington manager Davey Johnson again wasn’t in love with the pitch selection Strasburg and Flores chose. Strasburg didn’t react all that well after Frandsen’s homer, either, and he and Flores let speedy Juan Pierre run all over them in the third inning with a pair of stolen bases before scoring on a throwing error. Strasburg has basically lived up to his own hype this season, but he still mixes in the occasional stinker. That inconsistency is a hallmark of pitchers in their first full year back from Tommy John surgery. It happened to teammate Jordan Zimmermann at times in 2011. But Strasburg didn’t want to hear any of that.
“I’m not blaming it on having Tommy John,” Strasburg said when the subject was broached. “It happens to everybody so I’m just going to forget about it and make the adjustments. It has nothing to do with coming off Tommy John. That’s over two years now. I was just flying open a little bit and it was causing my ball to get flat and get up in the zone.”
Johnson agreed. Sometimes Strasburg responds to failure by trying too hard and it only leads to more trouble. Flores said he was looking to make perfect pitches after the two-run homer. Things then fell apart in the fourth when pitcher Cliff Lee drove home a run with an RBI single and Rollins floated a ball off the wall in right field that led to an inside-the-park homer. This is all relative, of course. We’re still talking about one of the best pitchers on the planet and a man who even after a six-run start in four innings still has a 3.12 ERA.
“It’s just experience. He’s a smart pitcher. He’ll learn from that,” Johnson said. “And that’s why I say with all the expectations and all the hype that’s brought out, he has that bar way up there, too. And so when he’s not hitting his spots, he’s not missing the bat, he loses a little bit of his cool, his demeanor…But that’s part of becoming a really good pitcher.”
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