This time, as pitching coach Steve McCatty walked in from the Nationals’ bullpen minutes before he would take the field for a re-debut of sorts, the affable pitching coach didn’t doff his cap to the adoring fans screaming out “Stephen!” as they passed. Stephen Strasburg wanted him to, but he didn’t.
And then, as the 23-year-old ace with the electric stuff and the pitching mind to match took the mound for his first major league post-Tommy John start, the pitching coach and Nationals manager Davey Johnson shared a light moment.
“Are you nervous?” Johnson asked McCatty.
“You’re nervous, too,” McCatty replied.
Then, he realized something.
“The only two people nervous are me and you,” McCatty told Johnson, remembering the moment later with a chuckle.
They couldn’t help it. That’s what happens when an athlete with so much hope resting on his shoulders goes back out to do the same thing that caused him to go into involuntary exile for a year.
“I get nervous for everybody,” McCatty said. “It’s not just Stephen, but for any pitcher. I’ve lived my worst nightmare with him once.”
But the nerves faded once Strasburg began firing 96 and 97-mph fastballs past the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chances are they faded even more when Strasburg threw his first changeup — a 90 mph pitch that dropped into the dirt in front of the plate and still got Andre Ethier to swing at it.
“He was outstanding,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He looked totally relaxed, totally in control. He had all his pitches working; he made it look easy. Real low pitch count, looked strong at the end.
“He stayed down most of the time, went up when he wanted to. It was just fun watching him. It’s just like he never went out. He was very relaxed. A couple times he let it loose on some strikeouts, but he was really very pitch efficient. It’ll be hard next time out. I think the way he’s throwing, I think 70-80 pitches is probably within his range, easy.”
They were impressed, particularly with Strasburg’s command and control. The pitcher has said that while his control comes and goes with his curveball and his offspeed pitches, he finds his fastball control to in fact be improved from what it was before surgery. But they were not surprised. As McCatty is fond of saying, nothing Stephen Strasburg does, or will ever do, surprises McCatty. Quite simply, in the coach’s eyes, there is no one else like him.
“If I say this, it sounds like I’m knocking (Jordan Zimmermann). I am not,” McCatty said. “But basically, with Zimmermann, last year, he went through (some control issues). That is the norm for Tommy John. Ask yourself, is this guy normal?
“When you think about it — and I didn’t see Sandy Koufax and have the joy to watch or learn some of the pitchers that had great intensity — but this guy expects a lot more out of himself… I don’t know anybody else who can come out and do it. I’m sure there are going to be certain games (where he doesn’t), and we’ll have to see how he does next time out.
“He looked as good this year or maybe even better as far as sheer dominance, being in control of what he wanted to do, than I saw last year. And I saw a lot of good stuff.”
The other side of the field, however, was less than blown away — despite the fact that the Dodgers, seemingly employing the strategy of some of the minor league teams that were able to knock Strasburg around during his rehab assignment, came out swinging early and often.
“The kid’s got a good arm,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. “But we see good arms all the time. You see 95, 96 mph. It’s not way different.”
But if Mattingly walked away unimpressed, that’s OK with McCatty, too. Just like it’s fine with him that he lived in the 96-97 mph range with his fastball most of the night. He touched 99, sure, but he wasn’t lighting up the radar gun in triple digits the way he did frequently last year.
“We talked about it many times, ‘Live up to what you think you are, don’t live up to what everybody else thinks you should be.’” McCatty said. “He had a big advantage with the stuff but you learn how to pitch within yourself and not everything is maximum effort every time you let everything go.
“He’s a smart kid. He takes a lot of what you say to him. He’s got a real good understanding of how he wants to pitch but it doesn’t mean he can’t learn.”