- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stephen Strasburg leaned against a leather couch, cap pulled low, and stared toward the bright lights of the media swarm.

The end of his season lurked behind each question — the team-mandated shutdown that’s become a national fascination — as the clock inched toward midnight Friday night in the clubhouse at Nationals Park.

But Strasburg batted the two minutes and 30 seconds worth of questions away as easily as the Miami Marlins swatted his 97-mile per hour fastballs around the field. The right-hander’s final home start of the season started with a roar from the crowd as he walked in from the bullpen and “Seven Nation Army” pounded. It ended with an ugly, abbreviated pitching line as the Marlins defeated the Nationals 9-7 in 10 innings.

The second-to-last start of Strasburg’s season was supposed to be the centerpiece, but faded in a back-and-forth game where the teams combined for 29 hits and a handful of bizarre plays. Still, every machination of Strasburg’s shutdown in the first full season after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow overshadows the Nationals’ best season since moving to Washington in 2005.

“I think he was just thinking too much about the decision for us to shut him down,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “He wasn’t focused as much on the game as the impending shutdown.”

On the mound, Strasburg wasn’t his usual self. Sure, fastballs touched the upper 90s. But his command was as elusive as a day without humidity. He walked the leadoff man, Bryan Petersen, to start the game and fell behind three of the first four batters. Just 37 of Strasburg’s 67 pitches were strikes.

When Strasburg got his fastballs over, they were straight and usually hung in the middle of the plate. Catcher Rob Brantly drove one into the right-field stands in the second, and young slugger Giancarlo Stanton did the same in the third.

Two starts ago, the Marlins pounded Strasburg for nine hits and seven runs in Miami. This was the same, just shorter.

“It felt like everything we threw up there, they could hit,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.

By the time Strasburg trudged off the mound after the third, he allowed six hits, five runs and three walks and tied for the shortest outing in 44 career starts. The three innings pushed Strasburg’s season total to 159.1, with his final start scheduled for Wednesday at the New York Mets.

Would Strasburg’s shortened outing Friday impact the plan for Wednesday’s start?

“It might,” Johnson said, without elaborating.

The manager said the looming shutdown has caused Strasburg difficulty sleeping, out of concern he’s letting down the team. Johnson believes Strasburg is willing to risk the long-term health of his surgically-repaired elbow to continue pitching this season. That won’t happen, of course. But it’s a level of emotion the pitcher doesn’t reveal in front of the media, sticking to his usual clipped, matter-of-fact answers Friday while three media relations staffers looked on.

To Strasburg, the answers to the struggles were simple. He didn’t command his fastball, fell behind hitters and, generally speaking, didn’t pitch well.

Command is usually the last thing to return for Tommy John patients. The late-season inconsistency isn’t unusual. In Jordan Zimmermann’s final 10 starts in 2011 — his first full season after the surgery — he gave up seven or more hits five times and four or more runs on four occasions.

Despite the struggles, the Nationals made a game of it behind seven extra base hits and loaded the bases with one out in the 10th behind Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth struck out to end the game.

But Strasburg couldn’t escape.

“My focus is on the next start,” Strasburg said. “You let it go and focus on the next time. I just didn’t really have it tonight.”

A few seconds later, the lights clicked off and Strasburg walked away.