There are certain truths for those who undergo Tommy John surgery. The recovery is long and arduous, the success rate is high, and of all the pieces that return to “good-as-new” eventually, control is the last to come.
Stephen Strasburg has lived the first one, hopes for the second and seems to be completely defying the third.
The right-hander moved through the Florida Marlins’ lineup on Saturday night in an eventual 4-1, 13-inning loss with surgeonlike precision, completing six innings in 61 pitches, striking out three, surrendering one run and four hits — but walking no one. In three major league starts this year, Strasburg has faced 50 batters. He has not walked a single one.
“It’s as impressive as it comes,” said reliever Ryan Mattheus, who is just over two years removed from Tommy John surgery and a first-hand survivor of the rehab Strasburg went through.
“I’m just trying to throw strikes,” Strasburg said with a shrug. “Walks are going to happen. Nobody can go out there and throw the ball exactly where they want to every time.”
Maybe not, but 379 days removed from surgery, he was pretty close. Of the 61 pitches he threw — hitting 97, 98 and 99 mph with his fastball in the first inning before sitting in the 94-96-mph range for the remainder of his evening — 45 of them were strikes.
“It’s really amazing,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He really worked hard in that recovery. He’s in great shape.”
He was fastball-reliant, throwing just 13 off-speed pitches all night: eight changeups and a curveball. But he had impeccable command of it. Strasburg started off 20 of the 21 batters he faced with his fastball and threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of those 21 batters.
“He throws hard,” said catcher Wilson Ramos. “He’s got a pretty good fastball, so we need to use that pitch. We used the breaking ball a lot tonight, too, but we have to use that fastball because he throws very hard.”
He threw the most pitches in the second inning (16), after a 13-pitch first, but never threw more than 10 in an inning after that. The Marlins approach changed the stronger Strasburg got. Early on, they waited. After the first time through the order, they weren’t as patient, leading to quicker innings and fewer pitches. In the third, coincidentally the same inning he surrendered the Marlins’ lone run until the 13th, Strasburg threw just eight pitches and not a single one was a ball.
That one run, however, was the product of a lead-off double by Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad and two sacrifices to get him home. The pitch, a 96-mph fastball that caught part of the middle of the plate, would end up being the one Strasburg would regret 10 innings later.
Collin Balester, in his third inning of relief, served up a two-run homer to Donnie Murphy. With one swing, Murphy broke a tie that had lasted seven innings and simultaneously ended a 24-inning scoreless streak for the Nationals’ bullpen that dated back seven days.
Mike Stanton, 0-for-5 to begin the game, including two three-pitch strikeouts against Strasburg, then doubled home the Marlins’ fourth and final run. The Nationals’ offense went meekly in the bottom of the 13th, making Ramos’ solo home run to open the fifth their only output for 22 innings of play in the series.
“It is [frustrating],” Johnson said. “I think there’s a pretty good mood around the ballclub. We’ve hit some balls hard. … But things go in cycles. We swung the bats good for a while. Now it’s just so-so.”
So on a night that Strasburg reached yet another milestone in his recovery, pitching six full innings for the first time since July 16, 2010, he left not elated by his own clear progress but frustrated by the team’s outcome.
“It felt good out there,” he said, with the knowledge that he’s on track to make two more starts this season. One should occur Friday at home against Atlanta and the other, possibly, in Florida for the season finale.
“Unfortunately, we battled hard and they just got the best of us. It was a tough game.”