Strasburg shows he's worth protecting
WASHINGTON -- Not to be a downer, Nationals fans, but this is what you'll be missing in six weeks or so.
Stephen Strasburg displayed the full range of his pitching brilliance on Tuesday night, overwhelming a very good Atlanta lineup in a 4-1 Washington win that didn't feel anywhere near that close. Strasburg had his full complement of pitches at prime sharpness, and he simply dominated the Braves in a game that pushed the Nats even closer to the postseason.
The game served to remind a city and all of baseball what they won't be seeing when that postseason finally arrives, since Strasburg won't be pitching in October even if the Nationals make it. Of course, it also revealed exactly why Washington is so eager to protect its young prize. If 10 more years of this kind of pitching are in fact the reward for taking Strasburg out of commission, you can surely understand where the club is coming from.
Strasburg, a pitcher who can go toe to toe with any starter in either league, a true No. 1, will of course not be pitching after about mid-September. He has somewhere on the order of five or six starts left in his season, regardless of how far his team goes.
So even as he helps pitch his team toward the nation's capital's first postseason games in nearly 70 years, Strasburg is also pitching himself closer to the dreaded shutdown. Except that he doesn't seem to be dreading it.
Strasburg is saying all the right things, that he's just worrying about doing his job until he can't do it anymore. And from the way he pitched on Tuesday, it's easy to believe him. He certainly didn't look like someone who was distracted.
"Nobody talks to me personally about it, so I can either scour the Internet and watch all the things people say on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel," he said with a laugh.
Against a lefty-heavy team in desperate need of a win, Strasburg was constantly in control on Tuesday. A rain delay didn't deter him, and in fact he may have been a bit sharper after the 51-minute sitdown.
Strasburg finally started to show, if not weakness, at least mortality in his last inning. After six, he was done, his day likely shortened by the rain. But it was a virtuoso showing while it lasted, equal parts pure treat and cruel tease for the Nationals' burgeoning fan base.
"Curveball, fastball, you name it, they were all devastating," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "That was one of the most impressive games I've seen."
When the Braves' Chipper Jones said Monday that nobody else can do what Strasburg does, it was easy to laugh it off as at least a little bit of hyperbole. Jones said Strasburg had qualities of Justin Verlander and a young Kerry Wood, but was better than even a hybrid of those two. It made for nice quotes, but was a bit hard to believe.
Then Strasburg went out and did exactly what Jones described.
He located his fastball in all four quadrants of the strike zone. He threw his curveball in and out of the zone, for called and swinging strikes. He made Martin Prado, a very good hitter, bail out on a curve that ended up over the middle of the plate. He got chase after chase with his hard changeup.
Strasburg's changeup in particular is just not fair. He throws the pitch at 91 mph. It dives, hard, like a split-fingered fastball. It moves away from a left-handed hitter or in on a right-hander like a changeup. It almost looks like a hard, sweeping slider thrown by a left-handed pitcher, except that Strasburg is right-handed.
"It's a dominant pitch," manager Davey Johnson said.
A pitch like that is the difference between being capable against left-handed hitters and blowing them away. It's the kind of weapon that makes a star pitcher someone to fear in October, even against the best lineups.
And so, here we are back again at this point. Because at least this October, Strasburg won't be unleashing that weapon on anybody. He'll be a spectator and a cheerleader, in the hopes that he'll get to throw many pitches in many Octobers to come.
For now, one spectacular night in August will have to do.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.