It can’t be easy for Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg. He is 24 years old and still relatively uncomfortable in the media spotlight. To be honest – he probably always will be. His personality just doesn’t mesh with answering intrusive questions that never seem to end. And for two months now all he’s heard about is how his impending shutdown by the Nationals is going to ruin a magical season.
It seems Strasburg had finally begun internalizing the debate that has consumed sports fans across the country all summer: How could a team on the cusp of contending for a championship shut down its best pitcher – an absolute punishment now for the theoretical benefit of a healthy arm over the next few years? And, of course, the unspoken accusation, usually implied by those former big league players: How could Strasburg let them take the ball away?
“I’m a firm believer that this game is 90, 95 percent mental,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said. “And he’s only human, and I don’t know how anybody can be totally mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype to this thing. And I think that we’d be risking more sending him back out.”
Strasburg has admitted to trouble sleeping, that he worries he’s letting his teammates down. And there’s no question that some in Washington’s own clubhouse disagree with the decision made by general manager Mike Rizzo to limit Strasburg in his first full season back from reconstructive elbow surgery. But the organization has stuck to its guns all year and the pitcher has no real say in the matter anyway.
Johnson reiterated that in a press conference on Saturday morning announcing that Strasburg’s season was over effective immediately. That decision came after an ugly three-inning, five-run performance against the Miami Marlins on Friday night. Johnson met with Strasburg in the training room Saturday and was blunt: He was taking the ball away.
“My job is to do what I think is best for the player,” Johnson said. “And this is what’s best.”
The clubhouse was closed as usual after Johnson’s meeting with the media and Strasburg was not immediately made available. But we gleaned some insight into his thoughts from his post-game comments on Friday. Strasburg can get testy with reporters anyway, especially if he feels a question is obvious, not factual or just plain dumb. That glare you see on the mound when he stares down a batter doesn’t disappear indoors.
Strasburg disagreed with Johnson’s contention that the drama surrounding his shutdown affected his focus for this game. He said he just didn’t pitch well. When asked if it’s been at all frustrating that he hasn’t sustained his consistency deep into the season he took exception.
“I feel like it’s been pretty good. I have a couple bad starts, but you know, I’ll take a couple bad starts over the course of a year any day,” Strasburg said.
He has a point. A bad game at home July 31 vs. the Phillies (four innings, six runs) was followed by four consecutive solid ones in August, allowing two runs or less in exactly six innings each time. He also shut out powerful St. Louis for six innings on Sept. 2.
But sandwiched between that start vs. the Cardinals were two ugly performances against the Marlins. On Aug. 28 in Miami Strasburg gave up seven runs, five earned, on nine hits. Then came Friday’s effort, where he allowed five runs in three innings and gave up two home runs. Still, Strasburg wasn’t conceding anything. A line of questioning about his struggles against Miami “this year” bothered him, too.
It was just poorly phrased, but not out of line. Everyone knows Strasburg went 30 innings vs. the Marlins – dating to his return from Tommy John surgery last September – with just one run allowed before these two recent hiccups.
“What, the last two times?” Strasburg said. “OK. Well, you know, obviously you’re facing a lot of new guys in there, so sometimes you go out there and you haven’t faced a guy multiple times and you’re going to have a little bit different approach maybe. It’s just the more times you get out there, you pick them apart and figure out what their weaknesses are. It’s just a learning process.”
Strasburg’s teammates supported him afterwards. Neither Kurt Suzuki nor Ryan Zimmermann thought focus was an issue. Ian Desmond insisted the Marlins have good hitters and that Strasburg just “got beat.” No question the bar is set almost too high. A 3.70 ERA over 11 starts shouldn’t be the end of the world for any pitcher.
“He is human,” Zimmerman said.
But life isn’t ever fair for elite athletes. They are judged under a far harsher spotlight than their peers. And his pitching coach and manager both saw a problem and didn’t think it worth the risk to try to fix it in the four days before his scheduled final start on Wednesday.
“We talk about things, and we just try to avoid the outside influences and just remain focused on what’s at hand,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said Friday. “I really haven’t had much of a chance to talk about it with him. I can’t really give you an honest answer. This team is not easy and he made some mistakes and he got hit.”
For all the lessons Strasburg could learn from two bad starts in three games, for all the information gleaned and processed in recent weeks, for all the noise pollution he dealt with on a daily basis, maybe the simplest idea was the one to turn towards.
“Let it go and just focus on the next one,” Strasburg said.
Now there won’t be one.
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