New focus on efficiency pays off for Stephen Strasburg

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

It was a different Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals on Opening Day. Expect to see more of this version throughout 2013.

Make no mistake -- Strasburg remains a pure power pitcher with the control to keep hitters off-balance and the raw stuff to blow fastballs past them. But he doesn't have to do that anymore, either. It is a strategy that an ace like Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers has learned throughout his career: Conserve yourself early in games and use that extra velocity late in games when you really need a strikeout.

And that is probably a good idea for Strasburg, who too often last year was effective but limited in how long he could go in games. As teammate Ian Desmond noted, the other team wins if it gets to the sixth inning and Strasburg is up near 100 pitches. The goal is to limit those nights. The way to do it is keep hitters off-balance with early breaking balls or just take a few miles off the fastball and locate it better. He did both on Monday.

"Most opposing clubs are going to be sitting off his fastball, and they're going to try to get a good swing on that," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "A lot of times, when you're in the count, that's what we're doing."

And so Strasburg finished with just three strikeouts on Monday in a 2-0 shutout win of the Miami Marlins. The opposing lineup wasn't the best, of course. But Strasburg took advantage of that by inducing 12 ground balls. He also didn't walk a batter and gave up just three hits, only one for extra bases.

"I'll take the quick outs any day of the week," Strasburg said in the wake of Monday's performance.

He was certainly efficient with just 80 pitches in seven innings. Maybe later in the season, Strasburg can take advantage of that and go eight or nine. That didn't happen once last season as the Nats tried to keep his innings in check and eventually shut him down after 1591Ú3.

"If it wasn't Opening Day and the first start of the year, it would have been a different story," Strasburg insisted.

So Johnson was in no mood to push his 24-year-old ace in the first game of the season in early April. There will be time yet for that this season. For now, he was content to get seven strong innings from Strasburg and happy to see that tweaked approach. Let the opponent get himself out. Strasburg is one of the few pitchers in the league with the stuff good enough to have that happen consistently.

"That's what you're going to see the more he pitches," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You'll see the guy that learns to take himself deeper into ballgames and understand there's times to go for the strikeout, there's times to go for the ground ball and go for contact. He's learning that more and more."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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