The first third of the season has seen a number of games the Nationals would like to forget. At the head of the list is likely the pre-Mother's Day Meltdown. It was an 8-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs on May 11 that dropped Stephen Strasburg's record to 1-5.
The afternoon was notable not so much for the actual defeat as it was for the way it happened.
Strasburg was sharp early. A two-out error by Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth shouldn't have been a precursor to disaster, not with the No. 8 hitter coming up. This is Stephen Strasburg we're discussing. But it became a monumental disaster.
Strasburg walked Darwin Barney, who is hitting .200 this season and was lower than that at the time. Strasburg got ahead of pitcher Edwin Jackson 0-2, went to 3-2 and then gave up a two-run double (it is Jackson's only hit this season). By the time that half of the inning ended, the Cubs were up 4-0.
Technically, none of the runs was earned since all four came after an error that would have been the third out.
In reality, they were all earned and the meltdown led to considerable discussion of Strasburg's mental state.
As it turns out, he's fine. Bad day, bad reaction, sure. But if what happened that day helped make Strasburg a better pitcher, a tougher pitcher, May 11 may ultimately go down as one of the team's best days of the season.
"The last two starts, that's the best we've seen him since he's been here," Nats shortstop Ian Desmond said Saturday, after Strasburg dominated the Philadelphia Phillies 6-1.
Very high praise, considering Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his debut in 2010 and looked absolutely brilliant in beating the Miami Marlins to open the 2013 season. He's had a lot more good games than bad. Strasburg was an All-Star last season. The Nats are very happy they took him with the first pick in 2009, and they should be.
The only quibble with Desmond's comment is he may have shorted Strasburg a game.
In three starts since May 11, Strasburg has gone eight, seven and eight innings. He's given up one earned run each game. In those 23 innings, he has allowed 13 hits. He's struck out 20. He's walked six, though none came against the Phillies on a day when he had nine strikeouts.
Washington has won two of those games and should have won the other. That was the day the ball dropped behind Bryce Harper and led to a bit of a kerfuffle with closer Rafael Soriano.
Strasburg's ERA during this stretch has fallen from 3.10 to 2.49.
The best part? There was yet another Zimmerman error in the start after the Cubs game. This time, it came with one out and loaded the bases. Strasburg looked at Zimmerman and appeared to be saying, "I got it." Whatever he actually said, he had it. He finished the inning with a groundout and a strikeout and then threw three more innings. He induced seven groundouts in those innings, showing he can pitch efficiently and not just rely on his power.
That there ever was a real problem with Strasburg is a hard point to make, even when that 1-5 record was staring everyone in the face. He's made 11 starts now, and given up two or fewer earned runs in eight of them. Even if you bend the rules and make those Cubs' runs "earned," two or fewer seven times every 11 starts is a stat most pitchers would take happily. He hasn't given up a home run in four straight starts and six of his past seven.
Watching him when he is on is a joy. There's an air about him of 'I'm controlling this game,' rather than one of the game controlling him. Even when the Phillies put two on with nobody out in the eighth, there was little panic as slugger Ryan Howard stepped in to pinch hit. Strasburg induced a double play.
This was powerful Strasburg on display and an elevated pitch count (112) kept him from going after his first complete game. Twice, he struck out the Phils' 4-5-6 hitters in the same inning. Granted, that's less impressive than it used to be given the decline of the Phils. It still takes some doing.
It's not how you start a season but how you finish, Strasburg said after that game. If he stays his current course, Strasburg looks like he's primed to finish pretty strong.
The stuck-in-the-mud Nats still have their issues. Being one game over .500 after 51 games is not what anyone envisioned.
Strasburg, though, is not one of those issues.
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