There are times in the long, dusty baseball season when a team needs its ace to be its ace. Sunday was one of those times for Washington Nationals. It wasn't that the Nats were in any particular duress; they began the afternoon with the second-best record in the National League. It was more a matter of Stephen Strasburg reassuring us that he isn't necessarily going to wheeze his way to his 160-inning limit (or whatever it may be).
Some of his recent performances, after all, have been decidedly un-Strasburglike. There was his inability to get through the sixth inning after being gifted with a 9-0 lead against Atlanta. And there was his outing at the start of this last home stand in which he gave up a career-high six earned runs against a Philadelphia club that just sold off some of its assets. The Nationals lost both those games, but more importantly, Strasburg lost some of his luster, his aura of awesomeness.
Indeed, in his previous 77.1 innings before Sunday — going back to the infamous Hot Stuff Episode — Strasburg had allowed 77 hits and posted an utterly human 3.96 ERA. In other words, he'd begun to resemble not a No. 1 starter but a guy still getting over the Tommy John hump.
We knew he'd have games like these, stretches like this, in his climb back from surgery. Everybody does. It's always a bit of a shock, though, to come to grips with the notion that, in some respects, Strasburg is no different from the rest of humanity. I mean, he rode into Washington on a cloud, with a reputation for doing things few other pitchers can do. Ordinariness isn't supposed to be in his repertoire.
So when he took the mound against the Miami Marlins on Sunday at well-populated Nationals Park, the big question was: Which Strasburg are we going to see? The brilliant one or his baffling avatar, the hurler who caused an exasperated Davey Johnson to say, "He really doesn't know who he is at times. He doesn't trust his stuff."
On this occasion, though, there was none of that namby-pamby corner nibbling or overreliance on breaking stuff from Strasburg. He stayed ahead in the count, limited the visitors to three hits, struck out six and, in six relatively economical innings, staked the Nats to a 4-0 lead in what turned out to be a 4-1 win. He even drove in the first two runs with his ever-dangerous bat, his sixth and seventh RBI of the season. In so doing, he improved his record to 12-5 and temporarily laid to rest the concerns of the past few months.
From Johnson's perspective, it's merely a case of the kid "learning about himself and learning about the league. It's a process you go through." A young pitcher, he said, needs to get "comfortable with knowing who you're playing and what their strengths are." Then he's "not as anxious."
But with Strasburg, there's more to it than that. His perfectionism — that is, his desire to keep the opposing hitter from applying bat to ball — can cause him to pitch almost defensively. He seems to forget sometimes that, as Adam LaRoche put it, occasionally a hit, even a homer, is just happenstance, not the result of hurler error or inadequacy.
"You don't suddenly abort a pitch for the next two innings because somebody hit it," he said. "If he hits it, blow the next guy away. If he hits it, blow the next guy away."
Then, too, Strasburg still is getting used to laboring in the sub-Saharan heat of big-league summers. "I've never really pitched in August [conditions] in my career," he said. "It's just a matter of taking care of your body and trying not to get too excited and overpitch."
It's hard not to feel for Strasburg. If making the playoffs can be compared to baking a cake, then poor Stephen is going to be denied the best part: eating the frosting. He'll be shut down by then — for his good and that of the franchise. But the Nationals need Strasburg to be Strasburg for as long as he's allowed, to pitch as resolutely as he did against the Marlins every time out, to help make sure there is a postseason.
Thanks to his latest efforts, the Nats are 22 games over .500 for the first time ever — and starting a road trip to Houston, Arizona and San Francisco that could leave them in even better stead. Best of all, when Strasburg is handed the ball at AT&T Park on Aug. 15, weather permitting, he won't have to worry about temperatures in the triple digits.
We know this because of what equipment manager Mike Wallace cried out in the clubhouse as the players packed their bags: "Don't forget your hoodies! San Francisco!"
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