WASHINGTON, D.C. – It is easy to forget that Stephen Strasburg(notes) is barely 22, that he has been a professional pitcher for five months and that while he fires a thunderbolt of a fastball it isn’t always going to crackle the way he would like. And sometimes that fastball is going to get hit. As it did Tuesday night.
Everything has happened so fast in Strasburg’s first season that there was bound to be a letdown, maybe even danger signs. Some things are not meant to be rushed, like a young pitcher’s growth.
Maybe he made it seem easy, the way he careened through two minor-league levels and six weeks of the majors heaving his 100 mph fastball past hitters, liquefying their knees with his curve. He gave everyone reason to believe he could defy the process, even when it was ludicrous to think a pitcher could stomp through major league hitters so effortlessly.
But the way he made so many of them look so foolish gave rise to the ridiculous: this thought that he was an All Star after a month in the big leagues, this fantasy that he was so blessed with an ability so magical as to defy nature.
“We raised the bar very high for Stephen, perhaps unfairly,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.
Then came that strange evening in the bullpen at Nationals Park two weeks ago when something didn’t feel right in Strasburg’s shoulder, followed by days of examinations, the disabled list and the held breath of an organization desperate to create a legacy in Washington. When he walked out to warm up before Tuesday’s game on a sticky summer night, it might have been the most anticipated moment in the franchise’s brief time in Washington.
Would he break?
Would he scream in pain clutching his shoulder?
Instead he got pounded. As rookie pitchers do.
He couldn’t put his fastball where he wanted it. His curveball floated too far and too flat in the humidity. And the Marlins hitters crushed everything. Hanley Ramirez(notes) hit a ball so hard off the right-field fence he was almost thrown out at second base. Dan Uggla(notes) hit a double that was struck even harder than his first-inning home run, each of which drove in two runs. Strasburg looked dazed.
And because Strasburg had dominated every professional game he pitched this year at three levels, it was an odd sensation. Almost as if he didn’t know what to do. Two outs into the fifth inning he was gone, having given up six hits and six runs. He probably should have been pulled before that. He’d never been hit this hard.
Later he said he was obsessing too much about why his pitches weren’t working rather than simply letting the ball go. Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said he was sure Strasburg was thinking about mechanics instead of what he called “competing.” This is often the mistake of an inexperienced pitcher, he said.
Yet there is no way to slow the runaway locomotive that has become Stephen Strasburg. The expectations have ballooned too much. Because the assumption is that he will always be overwhelming, every time he isn’t seems like a warning that something is wrong. Riggleman and McCatty were besieged by questions: Were they worried? Is there a problem? Is Strasburg all right?
“It just wasn’t his night,” Riggleman sighed.
But too much is on Strasburg right now for him to have off-nights. He can’t simply be the best rookie pitcher in baseball: he must also be the savior of the Nationals, the cornerstone of a team that still can’t grab the Washington market the way everyone anticipated when it arrived her in 2005. Even if he is still in his first professional season.
On Tuesday, as the Marlins rocketed Strasburg’s pitches all over Nationals Park, the scoreboard hyped Thursday night’s promotion: a DVD of Strasburg’s first Major League start. His name was shouted in the stands. The first foul ball into the stands was caught by a man wearing a Strasburg jersey. He was cheered by hundreds of others also wearing Strasburg jerseys.
It’s all too much.
Probably no pitcher belongs in the majors so soon after the amateur ranks. No matter how brilliant Strasburg was in the minors and at San Diego State, he should still be developing in Harrisburg or Syracuse. But Washington wanted its golden prodigy and the Nationals needed to ignite a moribund franchise. And because Strasburg was striking out everybody anyway, he was rushed up to do the same in the big leagues.
Hopefully he will get a chance to be a rookie again, to look dumb on nights when nothing works and he’s watching his best fastball sail into the bleachers. There’s still so much for him to learn and for the Nationals to understand about their baseball messiah. He mysteriously seemed to imply that the injury was the result of neglecting his body, not doing enough to take care of himself. He said he planned on “definitely taking a professional approach” to fitness.
When someone asked McCatty how Strasburg handles adversity, McCatty stared blankly at the question.
“I haven’t seen him have any adversity,” he said.
And now that he has, McCatty said he was going to “take this one in stride and see how he handles it.”
As should everyone.
Building Stephen Strasburg is going to take time. Signs are showing that everyone has been pushing him too far and too fast.
Strasburg might yet save the Nationals, but they have to be sure not to ruin him first.