The Washington Times - September 28, 2013, 02:23AM

PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg walked off the mound at Chase Field Friday night after seven innings and Davey Johnson reached out his hand. Strasburg clasped it, and as they shook Johnson told his right-hander his night was finished. His season, for no other reason than that there are only two games left to play, was over. 

“Great season,” Johnson told him.  

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“I think he grew from all the experiences he had this year. I think the whole ball club, same way. We had a lot of little growing to do.”

Strasburg traded the suffocating nature of the most well-publicized innings limit in baseball in 2012 for different kinds of obstacles in 2013. His numbers were good — better, even than a year ago — but so many starts seemed marred by something strange. Rain. An ejection. Multiple balks in the same inning. A lat strain. An error that leads to a meltdown. 

Strasburg went seven innings and allowed just two runs in the Nationals’ 8-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night. He finished his season with 183 innings, a 3.00 ERA, an 8-9 record due in part to pathetic run support, 191 strikeouts, 136 hits and 56 walks. 

And still, the ending came with a question mark. For all of Strasburg’s strides this season — working to hold runners, working to keep his focus on the task at hand and as catcher Wilson Ramos said, not “put his head down” after every miscue on the field — the question of what he could be when it all comes together remains. 

“I still think Stephen’s got a long way to go,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who crushed a 448-foot home run, tied for the longest of his career, in the fifth inning to stake Strasburg to a 5-2 lead. 

“He’s got a while ‘til he’ll reach his ceiling, but he’s young, he’s still learning. This year’s been good for him. I think it’s been a challenging year, it’s been a trying year for him, and it probably didn’t go exactly the way he wanted it to, but he pitched good. He grew up a lot throughout the year and I think it’s definitely something that he can build on… I think there’s a lot more in the tank.” 

That was an assessment that his catcher, Wilson Ramos, manager and Strasburg himself seemed to agree with.

“He’s always good but, for me, with the stuff he’s got, he will be better,” said Ramos, who hit his own mammoth home run in the eighth to put the Nationals up 8-2. “He will be better. He’s one of those guys who can do everything on the mound.”

“I put more pressure on myself than anybody,” Strasburg said. “I think I have to step back a few times and not be so hard on myself. Because I honestly do expect to throw a no-hitter out there every time. It still hasn’t happened, but I expect it to.”

“He made improvements (this year),” Johnson said. “He’s getting to be the complete pitcher. He’s awfully good as it is. But there’s a little room in there for improvement.”

When Strasburg came into the season, he did it with a goal of trying to go deeper into games and eat innings. He lasted at least seven innings in 16 of his 30 starts this season, averaging 6 1/3 innings, pitched his first career shutout on Aug. 11 and came one out from a second complete game two starts later.  

Abysmal at holding baserunners a season ago, Strasburg worked this season to do a better job with them. Friday night, he threw over to first base multiple times with runners on, just in an attempt to keep them close, and he did it without a sign from catcher Ramos.  

Early in the season, when a throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman on a play that would’ve ended an inning led to a meltdown that included slumped shoulders and dejected looks, the Nationals talked openly about Strasburg needing a better presence on the mound. He worked to adjust, and to stop letting different adversities — weather, errors, umpire calls, or whatever — affect what he did after they occurred.  

Friday night, he opened the bottom of the third inning with a walk and a hit batter, and that was followed with back-to-back hits, a double play and a walk. The Nationals fell into a 2-0 hole, but he allowed only three baserunners from that point on.

He no longer hangs his head, the body language Ramos and others chastised him about previously.

“I think there’s a lot of things I can improve on,” Strasburg said Friday night, with six months before his next regular-season game. “But I think one thing I did a good job improving from the beginning of the season was that when things that happened that were unexpected, I tried not to let that affect me as much and carry over to the next pitch. 

“Obviously there were a lot of crazy things that happened this year for me and for this team. I think that’s one thing we learned as a group: It all doesn’t matter. It’s all about how you respond to it… I’d say I learned a lot. It’s all about whether or not I can apply it.”