MIAMI — The Nationals’ issues with holding baserunners are not a secret. They’re no secret to them, to fans watching and certainly not to opposing teams. Two of the baserunners who’ve now stolen against the Nationals this season are Cliff Lee and Carlos Lee. That’s not exactly the speediest pairing.
This is not a new problem. The Nationals have caught just 15 of 110 attempted base stealers this season. Their catchers have been getting left out to dry while their pitchers focus on the plate and don’t vary their times. Stephen Strasburg has been one of the worst, though not nearly the only, offender.
Tuesday night, it helped lead to his undoing.
“I think he was fighting himself a little bit,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Gave up more hits than he’s used to giving up, and they ran on him. We’ve been talking to him about that they’re timing it. Change your tempo. Step off. Guys that couldn’t run were stealing. It’s a learning process and he’s still going through that.”
Fourteen of 16 attempted base stealers have been successful with Strasburg on the mound and before Lee took second without a throw on Tuesday, it was Bryan Petersen — who was 3/4 of the way to second base by the time the ball was getting into Kurt Suzuki’s glove.
Strasburg admitted, as he has before, that he’s not done a good enough job holding runners. His times to the plate are quick, but he rarely varies his motion and runners know that once he’s committed, he’s going to the plate. But, again, he’s hardly the only one. Craig Stammen has allowed 12 of 12 runners to steal. Gio Gonzalez 10 of 11. Jordan Zimmermann nine of 10. Even Sean Burnett, who was visibly disgusted with himself on Saturday after Chase Utley scampered around the bases on him, has allowed all six attempts against him to be successful.
Every Nationals’ pitcher has allowed at least one stolen base. And no one has been on the mound when more than three have been caught.
On Tuesday Strasburg was asked how all the baserunners affected him. “Didn’t,” he said, before relenting.
“Which I guess is probably not a good thing,” he said. “I was focused on just trying to get back on track and, I mean, i’ve got to do better than that.”
The Nationals have discussed the issue with their pitchers, they’ve stressed varying their times to the plate and not being afraid to step off or throw over (though throwing over is called from the dugout by bench coach Randy Knorr). But they’ve also stressed focusing on the hitter.
“That’s what we do,” Knorr said in a story done on the topic earlier this month. “If that’s the worst thing we’ve got going for us, still being in first place, we’ll do our best to slow it down but we’re not going to get away from our stuff.”
But the responsibility still lies with each pitcher to execute what they’ve been reminded to do and to use their own baseball smarts to realize runners aren’t going to let them continue to get away with paying them little attention. In a playoff series, where opponents get to know one another extremely well, it’s a weakness that could be exposed often.
“(Strasburg) knows to step off,” Johnson said Tuesday. “They timed him. They times his move. He’s real quick to home but they keep timing and that just shook him up a little bit.”
“I think it’s something we as a team and as a pitching staff have struggled with,” Strasburg said. “I think I’ve got to remember there’s a guy on base and I have to keep my times different and pick over a couple times. There’s no excuses.”