Hype not part of Strasburg's program

Stephen Strasburg allowed a leadoff homer and nothing more on Friday

WASHINGTON – Do not dare mention the H-word in Stephen Strasburg's(notes) presence. Heaven forbid someone does, and the crown prince turns inside-out like a salted slug.

He does not like to talk about hype. Not talk about it, not revel in it, not even acknowledge it. In the bubble Strasburg has created for himself and his handlers – or are they enablers? – have nurtured, he coolly denies that there might be something going on outside the world in which he pitches every five days for the Washington Nationals.

There are far more grievous sins, of course, than being a robotic superstar, and if Strasburg continues pitching in the fashion he finished out his first half, Washington gladly will embrace his metallic endoskeleton. He's too much fun to watch, too good at his craft to nitpick, and while he turned surly at the mere mention of the hype machine, at least it tells us that six years from now he won't be announcing his free-agent destination on TV.

After allowing a leadoff home run, Strasburg shut down the San Francisco Giants in an 8-1 victory Friday night. He went six innings, yielded three hits, struck out eight, hit 100 mph a couple times and did so with all the style of shag carpet. For now, Strasburg is 99.9 percent substance, an automaton programmed to pitch and destroy.

Since the Nationals summoned him in early June, Strasburg has taken control of some aspects – he refuses to talk except after his starts, a concession the Nationals facilitate – and allowed others to push certain buttons. Until Friday, for example, Strasburg hadn't called his own pitches.

Which, he admitted, made his first six starts a smidgen more difficult. Even if Strasburg doesn't know hitters as well as his catcher, he knows his arm better than anyone, and already he's one of a handful of pitchers whose pure stuff can overwhelm an entire lineup when used correctly.

"I wanted to go back to what defines me as a pitcher," Strasburg said. "You guys can make that definition yourself."

Here's a shot.

Strasburg wants to work off his fastball early. He threw it first pitch to eight hitters his initial time through the Giants' lineup.

He prefers to throw significantly more breaking balls, especially the second time through the order. Nearly one-third of his 95 pitches were curveballs, substantially higher than the 21.5 percent he averaged in his first six starts.

He enjoys pitching inside, especially since hitters in his previous few starts dove across the plate to catch up to his fastball. He threw 31 pitches inside, including a goose-bump-inducing 99-mph fastball, a couple at 98 and one at 96. Better yet, Nationals catcher Wil Nieves(notes) said, when Strasburg aims inside, "It seems like 140. If you see a fastball in there, you just want to get out of the way. You're hoping not to get hit."

Most of all, Strasburg loves to move around the plate. His seven-pitch fourth-inning at-bat with Aubrey Huff(notes) was textbook. In order: high and outside, high over the middle, low and inside, high and inside, low and inside, low and outside, middle and inside. Only seven times did Strasburg throw back-to-back pitches in the same vicinity. He moved up and down, side to side, changed eye levels, velocities and breaks, throwing not like a 21-year-old calling a game for the first time but a veteran who happens to hit triple digits.

"It's all about the sequences," Strasburg said. "That's what we're really trying to work on. I think today was the first time where I really went out there and wanted to go out and call my own game. Do what I wanted to throw in whatever count. I learned a lot tonight. It's part of the process of becoming a premier major league pitcher."

He's selling himself short. Strasburg already is a premier major league pitcher. In seven starts, his earned-run average is 2.32. He has struck out 61 hitters in 42 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .205 against him, slugging .288. No starter in baseball has held hitters to a lower OPS.

That wasn't enough to fetch him an All-Star Game appearance, something Strasburg addressed earlier this week. When the hype factor was broached then, he clammed up again, uncomfortable with the idea of people finding him as superlative as he so obviously is, even as the hoopla begins its descent locally.

Nearly 20 percent of the stadium was empty on a Friday night in which the biggest show in baseball was center stage, more proof that Washington remains a zygote of a baseball town. In Anaheim, meanwhile, Major League Baseball set up a rack of T-shirts with Strasburg's name and No. 37 on them, ready to peddle the player whom it deemed unworthy of its marquee midsummer event.

Perhaps it's best, actually, that MLB kept him away, because Strasburg remains ill-prepared for the limelight that is tracing a path toward him. The coddling can last only so long. The babying can go only so far. The hype is real, and as long as he pitches this way, it will only grow on a national basis. Ignoring it is just as negligent as LeBroning it.

The bubble will pop soon enough. Hopefully, Strasburg is the one holding the pin.