- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2015

As he made the long, lonely walk from the pitching mound to the dugout, Stephen Strasburg lowered his head and stared only at the ground. His ninth start of the season had come to a disappointing and early end Saturday afternoon, and frustration was pulsing through his mind. This is not how he envisioned the beginning of his season. It’s not what anyone envisioned.

The doubts surrounding Strasburg have grown into significant questions in recent weeks, and those questions will linger until his performance improves. On Saturday, he allowed five earned runs and didn’t pitch out of the fourth inning in an 8-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. In four May starts, he has allowed 24 hits and 17 earned runs. Only once in that span has he pitched beyond the fourth inning.

Strasburg’s 6.50 ERA is second-worst among qualified major-league starters. His WHIP, 1.69, ranks last. Opponents are hitting .321 against him with an .838 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He is in the midst of the worst stretch of his professional career, confronting prolonged failure for the first time in the big leagues.

“It’s definitely something that I’ve never experienced before,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s a test. It’s a test for me and I’m going to look at it that way and I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep going.”

What’s wrong with Strasburg? There is no clear indication. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with him at all. Maybe this is merely the type of slump that all players at every position go through at one time or another. That’s what manager Matt Williams believes. Time will tell.

“I’m not concerned about it,” Williams said. “Everybody has issues sometimes and has a mini-slump. The next opportunity for him is five days from now, and you never know what might happen there. It may be really good.”

Strasburg has navigated a number of minor injuries over the past few months. He sprained his left ankle in spring training but returned quickly and made his first scheduled start of the regular season. He missed one outing earlier this month with back soreness, the result of flawed mechanics after overcompensating for the ankle injury, but he has made each of his three scheduled starts since.

When asked if he’s noticed any lingering effects of the injuries, or subsequent mechanical issues, the right-hander paused before answering.

“I really don’t know,” Strasburg said. “I think I came out and I was pounding it good early and then I just stopped hitting my spots for some reason.”

Ian Desmond said he can somewhat relate to what Strasburg is going through. The veteran shortstop committed a slew of fielding errors over the first month of the season before returning to his usually sure-handed self. 

“It’s going to be really good to see him bounce out of it,” Desmond said. “It looks like he lacks a little bit of confidence out there. Maybe he’s fighting something mentally. But I have no doubt that he’ll shake it off and come back just as good as ever.”

Over the past four or five starts, Desmond said many of the balls hit off Strasburg have simply found open space in the field. The statistics support that theory. Entering Saturday night, Strasburg’s .393 batting average with balls in play (BABIP) was the highest in the majors. The league average is .293.

Yet the difference in Saturday’s game, at least in Williams’ eyes, was Strasburg’s inability to retire hitters with two strikes in the count. A number of two-strike pitches sailed high in the zone, a prime location for opposing hitters.

“I just didn’t execute,” Strasburg said. “I just didn’t make the pitches that I was trying to do. Just got to learn from it.”

Strasburg entered the big leagues as one of the most heralded pitching prospects of his generation, an aura further fueled by his 14-strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his debut. He was an all-star in 2012 and led the National League in strikeouts last season.

To see that pitcher struggling like this has been a source of concern for fans and pundits alike. There is no trace of that sentiment in Williams’ mind, however.

“We’re not concerned,” the manager said. “He’s one of our guys. He been one of our guys. He will continue to be one of our guys. He’s going through a rough stretch. It doesn’t mean he can’t come out of it his next start and be absolutely dominant. He has that capability every time he walks out on the mound. He will work hard until the next one and be ready to go.”

Strasburg is in line to make his next start Friday in Cincinnati. It will provide an opportunity for the 26-year-old to turn his disappointing season around, to turn the page on a forgettable two months. But should the struggles continue, doubt will continue to creep in. The questions will linger until Strasburg is able to answer them.

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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