- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When Stephen Strasburg stands on the mound, his mentality is that there’s no one he can’t do battle with. If he knows a guy is a dead fastball hitter, one side of his mind tells him, “Blow this one by him.” Why not? He’s got the ability to reach triple digits on the radar gun, his ball moves, and his arm, the one with the surgically-repaired right elbow, is feeling good this spring — so really, why not?

But the other side of his brain, the part that focuses on pitching — not throwing — knows better.

And when he listens to the first side, to the side throwing caution to the wind and relying solely on his talent, he is reminded why that’s not what the great ones do. That’s not what Strasburg should do.

Wednesday night, in the Washington Nationals’ 6-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves, that reminder was served up by Dan Uggla. Served up, and then deposited over the right field wall at Champion Stadium in the first inning.

“He’s the type of hitter that, he’s going to be geared up for a fastball,” Strasburg said. “And my stubborn self, I wanted to blow it by him. Sure enough, he was on it.”

“That’s immaturity, yes,” Strasburg added, admitting — and agreeing with manager Davey Johnson — that he was overthrowing. “You see it with [Justin Verlander] last year. He wasn’t throwing 100 every pitch. That’s something that I’ve got to remember. The best pitchers in the game don’t go out there and throw.”

Uggla, specifically, appears rarely to be fooled by Strasburg’s fastball. Of all the hitters Strasburg has faced in his brief but dazzling major league career, the second baseman is the only one to have more than three hits off him. In seven regular-season meetings, Uggla is 5-for-7 with a double, a home run and five RBI. Wednesday night he accounted for the first three Braves’ runs, adding to his home run with a deep sacrifice fly to left field in the third inning.

But Strasburg wasn’t just off in the at-bat with Uggla. The right-hander struggled with location throughout his four-inning outing, as he allowed four earned runs off five hits and two walks and struck out only one. 

“I didn’t like what I was seeing,” Johnson said. “He was overthrowing, he wasn’t hitting his spots … he was just trying too hard, trying to get more out of it than he needs.

“He just needs to relax in the spring and start hitting his spots. He got up, he didn’t hit his spots, didn’t pitch, basically. He overthrew.”

Johnson didn’t mince words with Strasburg when the right-hander came in after his final inning. For the manager who’s said before he felt Strasburg was overthrowing when he made his debut in June of 2010 — and less than three months later required Tommy John surgery — watching Strasburg ramp up and light up the radar gun with bad location was not something he enjoyed.

“I just don’t like to see him amp up and try to get more out of it because he’s a pitcher and he hits his spots,” Johnson said. “When he tried to get the ball down, he was missing bad, and then he was missing up bad.”

It’s difficult for Strasburg to turn off that switch, the one that allows him to load his arm and blast pitches past hitters. Since he was drafted, hype has followed him everywhere. Sellout crowds have beckoned at every turn, cameras have flashed with every pitch. He throws it into another gear because he likes rising to the occasion. But it’s March, and the lights won’t come on for another three weeks.

These results don’t matter. Building strength and refining his talent is all that counts right now. It’s just hard for him to remember that.

“I think that’s one thing I’m fighting myself with a little bit,” he said. “I expect myself, every single time, to go out there and throw up zeroes. That’s the expectation I have for myself. But it’s my third outing in spring and, I just, I know it’s going to get better.

“That’s one thing that, being a professional and having more experience, you’ve got to remember that it is spring training and the way you’re to go out there and pitch later on in the year is a lot different than what you’re trying to do now.”