- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2011

In a quiet moment this week in Philadelphia, Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty was asked to evaluate Stephen Strasburg’s first three major league starts. They were a small sampling of exceptional work for someone just more than a year removed from ligament replacement surgery.

But McCatty didn’t flinch, shaking his head and returning to an old standby when discussing the Nationals’ prized right-hander.

“You follow the norm of what usually happens with Tommy John,” McCatty said. “But again, is he a normal guy? He’s blessed with tremendous ability. He’s about as disciplined with what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it as any guy I’ve ever been around.

“He’s also pretty darn good.”

But in four innings of the Nationals’ 7-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night, and particularly a three-run first, Strasburg provided a reminder that he’s also a guy who’s made just 16 major league starts. Because of all of his ability, he’s a pitcher who is forced to learn situationally at the major league level.

In many ways, he was more normal than ever when he came out “a little hyper,” according to Nationals manager Davey Johnson, after he watched a 38-pitch, four-hit, three-run first inning where he struck out two and faced eight batters.

“He’s a young kid,” McCatty said Friday night. “He’s still feeling his way through this whole process and learning at the same time. It’s not easy to do. It really isn’t.

“A lot of times, the guys that are really good, you have to get them in the first couple of innings. You get them early and if you didn’t you aren’t going to get them at all. Sometimes with a young guy, especially a guy that’s a power pitcher, that the adrenaline kind of takes over. You’ve got to learn to control it and stay within yourself.”

It’s easy to forget that Strasburg spent two months in the minor leagues before arriving on the big-league stage. As he navigates his way through the waters of his post-Tommy John career, that may be something that becomes more evident. He’s not only learning to conquer his rehab but continue his development at the highest level.

“[Guys like Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock], they’ve had years of experience pitching in the minor leagues so when they come out here, you say ‘Oh boy they look great,’” McCatty said. “But they’ve learned situations and how to control themselves. Stephen’s had a big spotlight on him. He got here quick. It’s something he has to learn to do.”

He’s also learning that a 93-95-mph pitch with movement and sink, located well, is just as good as one that lights up the radar gun at 100.

Friday, that extra excitement resulted in leaving his pitches in the first inning up, as at least 20 of his 38 pitches were located in the mid-to-upper part of the strike zone. While he settled in to need no more than 13 pitches in any of the next three innings, he threw only 61 percent of his pitches on the night for strikes. In his previous three starts, he’d averaged 71 percent.

“He just got pumped up and was just throwing the ball, not pitching,” Johnson said. “And it was pretty obvious. He settled down and he was better. But early on, it was amped up, and only he can control that.”

Strasburg admitted as much, offering a simple “Yep,” when asked if the elevated pitches in the first inning were a direct result of that, but added that it was a bit of a double-edged sword.

“If you’re not amped up to go out there and pitch in front of a bunch of people against another team, then you’re playing the wrong game,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to find the groove. Typically, the first inning for anybody, you’ve got to get settled and get a feel for your pitches. They scored some runs off me before I was able to do that.”

There were certainly positives — most importantly, that he came out of the start healthy. But even with less control and command than he’s displayed in the past, he didn’t walk a batter and hasn’t walked a single one since returning to the major leagues.

Because of the Nationals’ inability to fully chip away at the Braves‘ lead despite multi-hit nights from Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos (two RBI) and Jayson Werth (who hit his 20th home run of the season), he also got his first decision since Aug. 10, 2010. The Braves added three more runs in the fifth and their final tally in the ninth on a botched rundown attempt by Henry Rodriguez and the Nationals’ infield. Still, the small victory of the night had long since been decided.

“I’m really not focusing on the numbers,” Strasburg said. “I’m trying to help this team win some ballgames and the bottom line is, I want to go into the offseason healthy.”

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