- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WASHINGTON | After the worst outing of Stephen Strasburg’s major league career, Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty was asked how he expects the rookie sensation to respond to a taste of trouble.

“Well,” McCatty replied, “I haven’t really seen him have too much adversity so far.”

It’s true. No one has. Not at this level, anyway.

Through his first nine starts for the Nationals, Strasburg was 5-2 with a 2.32 ERA, 75 strikeouts and 15 walks. He never lasted less than five innings and never allowed more than three earned runs — only the second player in major league history to begin a career with those numbers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Strasburg also never struck out fewer than five in any of those appearances, including a high of 14 in his dazzling debut June 8, a performance captured on a DVD the Nationals will hand out to the first 15,000 fans at Thursday’s home game.

“We’ve raised the bar very high for Stephen,” manager Jim Riggleman said, “and maybe unfairly.”

Now have come a couple of glitches. Strasburg was scratched from a start for the first time July 27, when he had trouble getting loose in the bullpen. Two days later, he went on the disabled list for the first time with inflammation in the back of his prized right shoulder — a condition that prompted the Nationals to “fine-tune” his arm exercises, trainer Lee Kuntz said.

And in Strasburg’s return from the DL, his 10th game in the majors, Tuesday night against the Florida Marlins? He went a career-low 4 1-3 innings, gave up a career-high six earned runs and struck out four hitters in an 8-2 loss to the Marlins.

“This the first time in the relatively short career that I’ve had where … not one pitch felt like I controlled it,” Strasburg said.

Look more closely at what happened Tuesday, and it only gets uglier:

—all six hits the right-hander allowed went for extra bases;

—half of his strikeouts came at the expense of the opposing pitcher;

Strasburg went to three-ball counts on five of the first 12 Marlins who came to the plate.

“He was out there kind of feeling for it a little bit,” said Florida’s Dan Uggla, who drove in four with a homer and a double. “His command wasn’t as good as the first time we faced him.”

That’s right: The Marlins were the first big league club to take a second trip into the Stras-tophere, and they thought that made a difference.

The other time the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft pitched against Florida, on July 16 in the first game after the All-Star break, he struck out seven in six shutout innings.

“When you haven’t seen a guy, you don’t know his command or his release point,” said Hanley Ramirez, who hit two doubles off Strasburg on Tuesday. “But we’ve seen him a couple times now.”

So what does it all mean? Well, Strasburg is scheduled to return to the mound Sunday at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“He knows — he’s a smart kid — that he’s going to have a couple of bad starts,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “The important thing was, he came back, his arm looked great, and he’s going to be here for a long time. So that’s what we’re more worried about this year.”

Indeed, Strasburg said he felt good warming up, on the mound and after the game.

“We altered some of his exercises to strengthen different areas,” Kuntz said, “and he’s responded well.”

Strasburg’s fastball consistently was at 98 or 99 mph early Tuesday, and he hit 100 once. The problem was that the baseball wasn’t going exactly where he wanted it to, something McCatty and Riggleman attributed to rust from not having appeared in a game in about three weeks.

So that’s the good news.

“Concern would be only about health, and I don’t have any concern about that. He feels great. He feels strong,” Riggleman said. “He didn’t hesitate to throw any of his pitches. There’s no concern in that respect. The Marlins got to him. That’s about all I can say.”

By all accounts, Strasburg is an intense competitor, one who seems to make a point of righting wrongs on the mound.

In a start last month against San Francisco, Strasburg gave up a homer to Andres Torres leading off the game. In Torres’ next at-bat, Strasburg struck him out to end an inning, then hopped off the mound, muttering something.

Against Florida, after giving up a two-run homer to Uggla on a 99 mph fastball that was supposed to stay away but went up and in, Strasburg greeted the next batter, Cody Ross, with a 100 mph swinging strike.

So perhaps Strasburg similarly will be focused on making the Diamondbacks pay Sunday for what the Marlins did Tuesday.

“He’s 22 years old. He’s got all the talent in the world,” McCatty said. “The next time he goes out, if everything’s back to normal, everyone will say, ‘Well, it was a little blip on the radar.’”