The night Stephen Strasburg made his memorable debut at Nationals Park, I saw a man standing on the concourse, on the edge of a crowd waiting on its feet for the first pitch, holding his infant son high in the air, making sure his son could say he saw the first pitch the great Strasburg threw in the major leagues.
That child is now 5 years old — and I’m guessing he’s not impressed.
The pitcher who struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates batters that night in June 2010 is far removed from the one who is taking the mound in 2015 for the Washington Nationals — the one who gave up five earned runs and didn’t get past the fourth inning in an 8-1 home loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday.
We’ve seen many versions of Strasburg since that night — the dominant Strasburg, the hard-luck Strasburg, and, of course, the most famous, the injured Strasburg — but we haven’t seen the one who can’t pitch.
Just like the night he made his debut — there aren’t really any words.
No one seems to have an explanation for what is wrong with Strasburg, who is now tracking to be one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. His 6.50 ERA is the second-worst among qualified major league starters. Batters are hitting .321 against him, with an .838 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“I know that he’s out there, throwing hard, good fastball again,” manager Matt Williams told reporters following the game Saturday, trying to offer some words of explanation. “Early fastball command was there, but just when he got them to two strikes he couldn’t put them away. That happens sometimes, but today it was just outside the strike zone or up in the strike zone or not throwing it where he wanted to with two strikes. So, it happens.”
No, it doesn’t. Or it hasn’t before. Not to “The Savior.”
This Strasburg is probably even confusing to the gutless wonders who declared the Nationals fools for shutting him down after 160 innings pitched in their National League East division-winning 2012 season, as part of the team’s protocol for post-Tommy John recovery — the same plan they followed for Jordan Zimmermann the year before.
The critics likely expected Strasburg to wind up blowing out his elbow again or encounter some other ailment as payback for the gall of general manager Mike Rizzo protecting an athlete. That was probably the scenario they hoped for, and so far have been denied, as Strasburg has pitched 442 innings since the 2012 shutdown — for the most part, healthy innings.
This one, though — a seemingly healthy Strasburg who just can’t pitch — well, no one expected it, critics and supporters alike. And no one seems to have an answer on how the next pitcher who was going to change baseball could struggle so much with the basics of command and mechanics.
“We’re not concerned,” Williams 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. I’m not concerned about it. 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.”
You never know what might happen there? It may be really good? These are words they used in post-game press conferences to describe Garrett Mock or Collin Balester. To use them to describe Stephen Strasburg is unnerving. And if it is unnerving to us, imagine what it is like inside Strasburg’s head — a seemingly complicated place where doubt could feast like Bartolo Colon at an Old Country Buffet.
“It’s frustrating,” Strasburg told reporters. “I’m not pitching to my ability and I just keep grinding. … It’s definitely something that I’ve never experienced before. I think it’s a test. It’s a test for me and I’m going look at it that way and I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep going.”
He better. Williams is right about one thing — Strasburg is one of their guys. It may seem like the pitching-rich Nationals, the hottest team in baseball, can survive a struggling Strasburg. But Doug Fister is on the disabled list with right forearm tightness and Gio Gonzalez continues to be inconsistent, although he was outstanding on Sunday. And Strasburg will be one of the ones left behind when Zimmermann and Fister leave for free agency at the end of the season. They are counting on him for the new 2016 version of the Nationals rotation — the last year of his contract in Washington.
The night of Strasburg’s 2010 debut, former Nationals manager Frank Robinson, working for baseball commissioner Bud Selig, walked into the Nationals clubhouse before the game and declared, “Where’s ‘The Savior’ hiding?”
He appeared that night five years ago. He has shown up from time to time since. But now, he’s lost.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.