Strasburg, Part Deux
Stephen Strasburg made his second debut last night, almost exactly a year after he was shut down with elbow pain following a late August start in 2010. He had surgery on September 3 after pitching to a 5-3 record and a 2.91 ERA in 2010. His first season seems like one that was so much longer than the eight weeks he was in Washington. But again, for the aching disappointment of it, it seems just that brief.
The second time round looks like it will be very different, like it will have more staying power. Leaving the stadium last night as the rain came pelting down with no sense of let up, there was not the giddy feeling of last June. It felt good though. My very wet Strasburg tee-shirt felt like it had better days yet to come.
There was a sense of depth to Strasburg’s first season because it caromed off so many bumpers, from Altoona to Harrisburg, the pinball lighting up every stop along the way to Syracuse. Every pitch was tracked carefully by a spellbound press. I saw the first start in Altoona, several in Harrisburg and then the historic first start at Nationals Park. The last of those games–that first one in DC–took on mythic proportion for Nationals fans, one that will go down with the grounder that bounced over Freddy Lindstrom’s shoulder in 1924. It was a great moment of Washington baseball lore.
But I fear we will not see it again, not in that same way at least. There looks to be just as much high drama in the Strasburg that was unveiled last night. Yet it will be different, and I believe, new and improved. Certainly he will not be less for the changes he is making, but he may not be quite as electric on the surface and that could prove a good thing.
Strasburg told the press that he felt stronger after his extensive rehab work and the medical book on Tommy John surgery–provided in great detail by Adam Kilgore of the Post–is that pitchers are stronger and in that sense better for the surgery. The new Strasburg is certainly no less confident that he is an exceptional talent. He worked hard to get to June 2010 and he has worked at least as hard to get back, to stand once again on the mound at Nationals Park a short year later.
The work has been on using more than just the fastball. As the article points out, he has spent his time building up those parts of his pitching motion that will help him avoid injury again. He seems also to be working on throwing his other pitches to better effect.
Still, it was the fastball that got Matt Kemp in the fourth inning and it was exciting. It was good to see the score board light up at 99 mph again. But we have seen Henry Rodriguez hit 102 this season and while he is another talent of considerable potential, it is readily apparent that something more is needed.
For Strasburg last night the real story is how little the Dodgers were able to make contact with the other stuff: the change-up that was used so much more and was almost 15 mph less than the fast ball. Then there was the other secondary stuff–whatever it was–that sat anywhere from 87 to 94. It made the eye-popping fastball look that much better. But when they got wood on the ball, they popped it up weakly or they grounded it to the infield. Only on four occasions did they put the barrel of the bat solidly on the ball. Two good hits to show for it, nothing more.
Dee Gordon led off the evening with a double and after watching Flash Gordon’s son struggle at the plate against John Lannan in the prior game against the Dodgers, it was grounds for concern. But it proved to be just a little rust showing. Straz escaped and got the next three in less than extraordinary fashion to end his first inning back.
Fifty-six pitches after his evening began–an extremely efficient outing–he was done. He gave up only two hits, nary a run, and no walks. The four strike outs may look like a note of caution, but I think not. They are really a note of warning.
Strasburg looked far more a master of his own fate last night and perhaps a much better pitcher than the one who wowed the crowds in the summer of 2010. The new Strasburg had the crowd on their feet yelling for more as he pounded the 99 mph heater past hitters to get to strike two. It was just like June of 2010 when the crowd got him amped up and he responded by blowing away the last six batters he faced with high heat that often hit triple digits.
But last night there was a smarter and more confident Stephen Strasburg on the mound. He changed up in the second inning to get Andre Ethier swinging. When the crowd challenged him to strike out his last batter, there was no 100 mph fastball, just a weak pop-pop and the night was done.
The new Strasburg seems to be more about pitching and that can only be a good thing for the young man, and a bad thing for opposing hitters. As the Washington Post pointed out this morning, last year Strasburg had only one outing where he shut out the opposing team. He was masterful, but his stuff was hittable. After settling in last night in the second inning, the stuff did not look over-powering as much as it looked hard to square up.
The Strasburg that we saw last night is just the beginning. The new Straz will get better as he masters those secondary pitches that were more for show last year. So bring on Strasburg Part Deux. This is no comedy except in the most classical sense of the word. There was a story with a happy ending last night and all of the paying customers walked away with a smile of their face. Every one of them will be back for the repeat performances.
There are going to be more very memorable moments in this drama. There is more history to come. Strasburg was once again center stage, very most definitely back, with much, much more on the way.