Washington Nationals fans have a lot to worry them these days. Among the problems:
• A 13-13 record.
• The Braves have beaten them eight straight times going back to 2012.
• An offense that has scored 95 runs, placing Nats hitters in the league's bottom third.
And all of it takes a back seat to this: Ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg felt tightness in his forearm Monday night in a 3-2 loss at Atlanta. Strasburg says there's nothing to worry about, but keep in mind what he has endured in recent years:
• Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2010 that limited him to five major league starts in 2011.
• A rigid innings limit (159 1/3, as it turns out) in 2012 as part of his recovery that locked him out of the playoffs and was the talk of baseball all season.
• Higher expectations than perhaps any other player in baseball.
Manager Davey Johnson said he knew something was up against the Braves because Strasburg walked four, had weaker command overall and was shaking his pitching arm frequently, reporter James Wagner of the Washington Post writes:
“He was still throwing good but his command was way off so I knew something was off,” said Johnson, adding it was too early to tell if Strasburg would miss his next start scheduled for Saturday. The Nationals have been cautious in the past with Strasburg, who had elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2010.
Strasburg, who shook his arm more than normal between pitches, insisted he felt fine on the mound. His said his command issues were because of a breakdown in his mechanics.
“I’m not missing my next start,” he said. “I’ll tell you right now.”
Is this just Strasburg being a competitor or is he in pre-denial? (Not that they're mutually exclusive.) But questions beg to be asked:
• Has the Nationals being super-cautions with Strasburg created unintended consequences — either physical or mental? Are they too worried about him getting hurt again by trying to control things that nobody can? Is Strasburg more worried about not getting hurt than he is letting 'er rip?
Strasburg's performance through six starts this season has been good, even very good at times, yet something has seemed off. His 3.13 ERA is nearly the same as that of a season ago. But his expected fielding-independent pitching, an advanced statistic that measures how well a pitcher should perform if fielders were removed from the equation, is 3.55 — or 74 points higher than his xFIP in 2012.
And his strikeout rate is down about 2 1/2 per nine innings, which not an insignificant drop, even if it's only six starts.
And now his forearm is tight. Hopefully the discomfort passes. But even if it does, will worry about the next ache begin to overshadow Strasburg's career?