Inconsistent night for Strasburg

832027.png

Inconsistent night for Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg wasn't thinking about the after-effects of Tommy John surgery as he slogged his way through a ragged, four-inning start Tuesday night in an 8-0 loss to the Phillies. He paid no attention to his right elbow as he served up a two-run homer to the little-known Kevin Frandsen in the top of the second, nor did it cross his mind as he watched Jimmy Rollins sprint around the bases for an inside-the-park home run in the top of the fourth.

And after matching his career high with six earned runs allowed during the third-shortest start of his 38 big-league appearances, Strasburg wasn't going to accept any links to the ligament replacement procedure he underwent in Sept. 2010.

"I'm not blaming it on having Tommy John," he said. "It happens to everybody. I'm just going to forget about it and make the adjustments. It has nothing to do with coming off Tommy John. That's over two years now."

Maybe so. Maybe this was just an off-night for the young Nationals ace. Off-nights, though, are nothing out of the ordinary for pitchers coming back from that major arm surgery, even two years after the fact. Actually, they're quite common.

Pitchers who have returned from Tommy John often talk about the inconsistency they experience during their first full season back on the mound. Pinpoint control may be there one night, then completely disappear five nights later.

This is especially true during the latter stages of that first season back, when the physical toll starts to catch up with pitchers who haven't thrown this many innings since suffering the injury.

Strasburg needs only look a couple of lockers down from his at Jordan Zimmermann, who experienced this very same phenomenon one year ago. After missing most of 2010 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann burst out of the gates early in 2011, posting a 2.66 ERA prior to the All-Star break. Then his command started to betray him and that ERA rose to 4.14 after the All-Star break.

Strasburg made only his fourth start since the break Tuesday night, and he's still got another six or seven to go before the Nationals shut him down for precautionary reasons (just as they did with Zimmermann last fall). But the trend is holding true so far. After posting a 2.82 ERA during the season's first half, Strasburg has seen that number rise to 4.43 since the Midsummer Classic.

"It's just a long grind, and you can't be totally dominant every time you go out there," manager Davey Johnson said. "He expects it of himself, and when he makes a bad pitch and a guy hits it out of the ballpark, it makes him try harder. It's part of learning."

Indeed, there is a mental side to this whole process, and it's one Strasburg still battles on a regular basis. He struggles at times to overcome adversity and lets one bad development snowball into something worse.

Witness a couple of key moments during Tuesday's game:

-- Shortly after serving up the second-inning homer to Frandsen (who last cleared the fences in a big-league ballpark in 2007), Strasburg let Juan Pierre steal both second and third bases and ultimately score when catcher Jesus Flores' throw sailed into left field.

-- In the fourth inning, Strasburg gave up a two-out single to Cliff Lee, then paid no attention to the opposing hurler and let him steal second base. Strasburg's very next pitch was tattooed by Rollins off the right-field fence, turning into an inside-the-park home run.

"He's been always an emotional guy," Flores said. "After the Frandsen homer, he kind of started forcing himself to make perfect pitches, but it seemed like it didn't work out."

The stolen bases -- all of them more a product of Strasburg's inability to hold the runner on than Flores' inability to throw them out -- were particularly troublesome. Not that Strasburg is alone on the Nationals' pitching staff in this regard.

Opponents have now been successful on 34 of their last 35 stolen-base attempts against the Nationals, with managers more and more giving their guys the green light to take advantage of this glaring weakness.

"That's one of the things that we haven't done well the whole season," said Flores, who overall has thrown out only four of 45 basestealers.

"Obviously I'm pretty upset with myself for letting guys steal on me," said Strasburg, who has let 12-of-14 runners steal off him this year. "It's something where things aren't going right, you still have to remember when there's guys on base. You've got to keep them close."

Nothing about Tuesday night's game was close from the Nationals' perspective. Entering this homestand on a high note following a 6-1 road trip that saw them enter the day owning baseball's best record -- the Cincinnati Reds now hold that title -- they put up little fight against a Phillies club that waved the symbolic white flag earlier in the afternoon by trading away outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.

"Once you do that and there's not expectations on them, then they're free-wheeling it," Johnson said. "Got a pretty good pitcher going against us who has been down that road. Seasoned. Doesn't make many mistakes. Pitched out of a couple jams. Made good pitches. Happens."

Bryce Harper's new Under Armour deal 'largest ever for a baseball player'

natscutin050216refframe_1.jpg

Bryce Harper's new Under Armour deal 'largest ever for a baseball player'

Bryce Harper, along with Angels' outfielder Mike Trout, is widely considered to be "The face of baseball."

The reigning N.L. MVP is off to a scorching start to the 2016 season and with his "Make Baseball Fun Again" campaign generating major buzz, Under Armour has decided to back up the Brink's truck.

The Baltimore-based sports apparel company recently inked Harper to a 10-year endorsement deal that, according to ESPN sports business insider Darren Rovell, is the largest endorsement deal ever offered to a Major League Baseball player.

Under Armour announced earlier Tuesday that Harper signed a multiyear extension but said terms, including the length of the deal and compensation, would not be disclosed. The brand, which has had Harper as an endorser for five years, will begin selling Harper's first signature cleat, the Under Armour Harper One, in July. 
 

Harper has been signed with Under Armour since April 2011, less than a year after he was drafted by the Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft.

Through the first 25 games of the 2016 season, Harper is batting .271 and has 24 RBIs and 9 home runs and was named the N.L. Player of the Month for April.

In locking up Harper for the long haul, Under Armour continues to brand themselves with MVP talent. Harper stands along side 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton, 2015 NBA MVP and world champion Steph Curry,  2015 Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth,  2015 NHL MVP (Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsey Award) Carey Price, and two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady as Under Armour athletes.

NL East: Bartolo Colon passes Pedro Martinez on career wins list

natscutin050216refframe_1.jpg

NL East: Bartolo Colon passes Pedro Martinez on career wins list

When the New York Mets signed Bartolo Colon prior at 40 years old prior to the 2014 season, many in The Big Apple probably saw him as nothing more than a veteran stop-gap arm for the starting rotation. 

But at 42 — the oldest player in the big leagues — Colon is still doing his thing with the Mets, and he's making history while he's at it. 

After pitching eight shutout innings in Monday's 4-1 victory over the Braves, Colon earned his 220th career win, passing Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez to become the second-winningest Domican-born pitcher in MLB history. 

"I think it's truly a great honor," Mets manager Terry Collins said of Colon's achievement, via MLB.com. "Pedro -- as great as he was -- to move ahead of him in wins, it shows the durability of what Bartolo's had to go through to get to this point." 

To Collins' point, Colon's durability has been remarkable in New York; since 2014, he's pitched 428 2/3 innings in 70 games, amassing a 31-27 record with a 4.01 ERA in that span. This year he's off to another solid start at 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA and a 27-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He may not have the arsenal he once did a young phenom with the Cleveland Indians, but continues to find ways to give the Mets just what they need. 

"I mean, I'm amazed he goes out there every fifth day and just goes through it, and nothing seems to faze him," Collins said. 

At 220 career wins, Colon still has a ways to go to catch the all-time winningest Dominican-born pitcher, Juan Marichal, who has 243 victories. But as he nears his 43rd birthday, Colon and the Mets are probably right to only worry about the here and now. 

"I can't think about [Marichal's record]," Colon said. "You just can't get your mind set like that. Right now, I'm just thinking about 221."

Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

nats_update_cutinrefframe_1.jpg

Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: After getting swept by the Phillies to close their most recent homestand, Nationals manager Dusty Baker called this Midwest road trip a good barometer for where they stand in the early part of this season. He, and many of his players, saw this road swing as a test, knowing they had yet to face one of baseball's best teams.

Four days later and the bar may need to be raised a little higher for these Nationals, as after sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, they opened their series at the defending champion Kansas City Royals with a convincing 2-0 victory on Monday night. Their brand of score early and let their pitching staff take it from there worked wonders once again.

Gio Gonzalez continued his career-best start to a season with six scoreless frames, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy notched first-inning RBI and the Nats' bullpen held on to push the Nats to club record 18-7 on the season through 25 games.

What it means: The 'they haven't beaten anyone' knock on the 2016 Nats can officially be put to rest. The Nationals are now 4-0 on this road trip, having first swept a 100-win team from a year ago in the Cardinals, to now opening this series against the reigning champs with a win. 

Gio keeps on rolling: Gonzalez battled a high pitch count early, but recovered to give the Nats six scoreless innings on four hits and two walks. Gio now has a 1.15 ERA through five starts this season, going at least six innings in each of those outings. The Nats rotation as a whole has held a 0.92 mark with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in their last six starts as a group. 

Zim comes up big: Zimmerman has been in quite the skid lately, finishing the month of April hitting .219/.301/.301 with just one hit in his last four games (13 ABs). Zimmerman had been showing positive signs, including the highest average exit velocity on the Nats through the weekend. And on Monday, he came through with a big hit in the first inning, an RBI double to right field to give the Nats an early lead. It was Zim's first RBI since April 26. The Nats have now scored 32 of their 101 total runs this season in the first inning. Zimmerman also smacked a ground-rule double in the ninth inning for just his fourth multi-hit game in 20 games this season.

Harper finally gets a hit: Harper's slump recent slump continued through his first two plate appearances on Monday, as Harper struck out and flew out to make it 16 at-bats without a hit dating back to last Thursday. Harper would finally get one, though, on a bloop single to left field to lead off the top of the sixth inning. Harper broke his slump, but he was quickly thrown out trying to steal second by Royals catcher Lorenzo Cain. He also now has only two hits in his last six games.

Murphy gets No. 1000: Murphy had another solid day at the plate on Monday with three hits and an RBI on a groundout in the first inning. His second hit was No. 1000 for his career. It was a double to center field in the sixth inning and it gave Murphy his 12th multi-hit game in 24 total appearances this season. Only three times this year has he been held hitless. Murphy, by the way, is the 10th player ever to record their 1000th career hit in a Nats uniform. Denard Span was the last in September of 2014.

Up next: The Nats continue their series at the Royals with another 8:15 p.m. start on Tuesday night. Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.03) and former Nats minor leaguer Chris Young (1-4, 6.12) are the starters.