Struggling ace starter to pitch in San Diego

Pitching for the first time as a major leaguer in his hometown on Thursday night, Stephen Strasburg returns to San Diego not as much a conquering hero as a troubled star facing fresh questions about his ability handle the mental side of the game.

During his longest streak of starts without a win as a big leaguer (seven), Strasburg has shown a lack of composure. In his latest loss, an 8-2 decision against the Cubs on Saturday afternoon, Strasburg was utterly dominant for four innings before unraveling when Ryan Zimmerman committed two-out throwing error.

Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said it is up to Strasburg to adapt better to adversity.

"Somebody makes an error, you gotta try to pick them up," McCatty said. "Go over and talk to them and say, 'Don't worry, I'll get you another ground ball,' or 'I'll get you another fly ball,' or whatever it is, whoever it is. That's what you do. But it's not a unique situation with Stephen."

For Strasburg, who is 1-5 with a 3.10 ERA, the numbers don't added up. Aside from wins and losses, his stats are nearly identical to last year, when he went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA. This season, Strasburg has allowed 7.8 hits, 2.7 walks and 0.9 home runs per nine innings, compared to 7.7 hits, 2.7 walks and 0.9 home runs last year. His strikeouts are down from 11.1 per nine innings to 9.3, but that can be viewed as a positive as Strasburg is learning to throw to contact to limit his pitch count.

As for pitching poorly in adverse circumstances, it's important to note that Strasburg's teammates have often put him in those situations. In six of his last seven starts, the Nationals have committed at least one error, and of the last 19 runs Strasburg has yielded, eight have been unearned. In addition, Washington has provided little offensive support, scoring only 18 runs in Strasburg's eight starts.

A pitcher of Strasburg's pedigree, however, is expected to be able to handle adversity and provide leadership, even at age 24.

After Saturday's loss to Chicago, Strasburg didn't sound committed to altering his mental approach.

"I feel like I'm going out there and pitching well. It's just not happening on the days I'm pitching right now," Strasburg said. "It's all going to change. It's still early. All I can do is go out there and give it everything I have every fifth day and whatever happens, happens."

This isn't the first time in his career that Strasburg has faced such questions. At West Hills High in Santee, he was a talented prospect but also overweight and prone to visible demonstrations of pique, especially when teammates screwed up. As a junior, Strasburg went 1-10.

At San Diego State, the right-hander got in shape and blossomed. Dominating games with his electric stuff, Strasburg's psyche was rarely exposed. The pattern continued in his first three seasons in the major leagues as he went 21-10. But this season, Strasburg's grit has been tested.

In college, he made a physical transformation and realized his potential. Now it might be time for Strasburg to undergo a mental make-over.