Inconsistent night for Strasburg

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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."

Stats you need to know in advance of Nationals' road trip

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Stats you need to know in advance of Nationals' road trip

BY RICH GOLDBERG (@GoldyStats)

After dismantling the Cardinals 10-2 in the series finale on Sunday, the Nationals hit the road for a nine-game road trip that will see them take on their N.L. East rival Philadelphia Phillies, the N.L. Central cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds and the suddenly ice-cold Chicago White Sox.

CSN researcher Rich Goldberg details the five stats you need to know before the Nats start June off on the road.

RELATED: CONSISTENCY KEY TO STRASBURG'S HISTORIC START

1. Bryce Harper has a 6-game home run streak at Philadelphia.

The only other visiting player to do that in Philadelphia? Hall of Famer Ernie Banks back in 1955.

 

2. Wilson Ramos is hitting .336 and leads all MLB catchers.

The previous 5 seasons, Ramos batted .270, .246, .250, .265 and .252 through the end of May.

 

3. Daniel Murphy has a career .406 batting average (26 for 64) at Great American Ballpark.

That is Murphy’s highest BA at any ballpark with a minimum of 4 games played.

 

4. Tanner Roark is 1-4 with a 8.27 career ERA in 5 road games (4 starts) at Philadelphia.

Roark has the fifth worst ERA by a visiting player at Citizens Bank Park, with a minimum of 4 starts. Roark pitches Monday against the Phillies.

 

5. Stephen Strasburg is the first pitcher in Nationals/Expos history to begin a season 9-0 and he’s 9 strikeouts away from his 1000th career K.

Strasburg is scheduled to start Saturday against the Reds.

Nats' Strasburg's consistency continues with franchise-best 9-0 start

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Nats' Strasburg's consistency continues with franchise-best 9-0 start

Exactly when Stephen Strasburg reached a turning point over the last nine or so months depends on whom you ask and where you look. 

Based solely on the numbers, Strasburg has been a different pitcher ever since he returned from the disabled list last August. In his 21 outings since Aug. 8, 2015, Strasburg is 15-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 182 strikeouts and 28 walks in 140 innings pitched.

For Jayson Werth, there was a noticeable change in Strasburg this spring training.

"He came in and he just had a good feel to him. He looked a little bigger, like he was in real good shape. He was talking a lot, which is always a good sign from him. He doesn’t always say too much," Werth said. 

"It just kind of felt like he was going to have a big year. So far, so good. He’s looked great. Obviously, I think the contract has helped… free agency can mess with some guys’ heads sometimes. He’s not going to have to deal with that."

For batterymate Wilson Ramos, the change in Strasburg is in the details. It's in his health and the way he works around trouble during his starts.

"He’s got a different mindset," Ramos said through an interpreter. "I know in the past his injuries have affected his performance out there. He’s always been a great starter for us. But before this year, it seemed like when he gets behind a run or two his morale would drop. This year, he stays optimistic out there and keeps attacking hitters no matter if he gives up a run or two. He’s very aggressive and it’s shown. He’s doing a great job for us out there."

Whatever the reason or the timing, Strasburg has found a new level of consistency this year, as the Nationals have won all 11 of his starts and at a perfect 9-0, he has the best record to begin a season in franchise history. That bests the 8-0 start for Pedro Martinez back in 1997 when he was with the Expos.

All of Strasburg's last 15 outings have resulted in a Nationals victory. This season he's gone at least six innings in all of his starts and only three times has he allowed more than two runs.

In Sunday's series finale against the Cardinals, Strasburg did what he's become increasingly prone to do. He allowed just one run across six innings and scattered six hits and two walks. The lone run came on a Brandon Moss homer in the fourth inning and that was the only extra-base hit he allowed on the day.

Almost every time the Cardinals threatened, he quickly stopped the bleeding and got the Nationals' defense off the field. 

"He's certainly earning his money," manager Dusty Baker said. "This is big for him, for him and us. He's been trying to figure out probably for a couple years why he's not a big winner because he has the stuff to be a big winner."

Becoming a 'big winner' requires some help, of course, and Strasburg is getting plenty of it. In his 11 starts this season the Nationals are averaging seven runs per game. 

That will take the pressure off.

"The guys swung the bats good today. I was just happy to give them a chance," Strasburg said.

Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

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Barrage of homers lead Nats past Cardinals in series finale

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 10-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Sometimes in baseball all it takes is a second look at a pitcher and on Sunday the difference between the Nationals' first run through the lineup and their second against Cardinals starter Michael Wacha was quite significant.

For the first three innings, the Nats were held hitless, the only baserunner earned on a walk to Wilson Ramos. But then in the fourth, things quickly devolved for Wacha. The Cardinals right-hander gave up two hits to lead off the frame, the second to score a run. He then allowed a two-RBI single to Ramos with two outs.

The three runs in the fourth off Wacha gave them the lead, but a five-run seventh inning put this one on ice for the Nationals. Anthony Rendon led off with a solo homer and Jayson Werth cleaned up the rest with a pinch-hit grand slam. It was Werth's sixth career grand slam and his first ever as a pinch-hitter. It was also just the second pinch-hit grand slam in Nats' history following Justin Maxwell's in September of 2007. You don't see them very often.

Ramos then added a two-run homer in the eighth to make it 10-2. It was Ramos' third hit of the day.

Ten runs were more than enough help for Stephen Strasburg and the Nats' bullpen. Strasburg gave up one run on a homer to Brandon Moss, but otherwise limited damage throughout the afternoon with six hits and two walks spread across six strong innings. Strasburg now has the best start in franchise history at 9-0.

The Nats' bullpen ran into some trouble in the seventh with a bases-loaded jam with one out, but Felipe Rivero escaped the frame with just one run allowed and a lead intact. The run came on a sac fly by Matt Adams, but all things considered, it could have been much, much worse. 

What it means: The Nationals closed their homestand on a positive note as they get set for an 11-day road trip, which is tied for the longest one they have this season. They also finished their season series against the Cardinals with a 5-2 record. That's a nice change of course after they went 8-18 against them from 2012 through 2015.

Rendon smacks homer No. 4: Rendon added an insurance run in the eighth inning with a solo home run to right field on the first pitch he saw from reliever Jonathan Broxton. After having zero homers in April, Rendon has four this month. He has reached safely in 20 of his last 22 games. In 18 games going back to May 10, Rendon is 24-for-63 (.381) with two homers, six doubles, a triple, 10 RBI, 12 walks, 11 runs and three steals. He posted his 10th multi-hit outing of that 18-game stretch. Even taking Saturday night off did not cool him down.

Ramos hits No. 6: Ramos reached base four times on Sunday with a walk and three hits in three at-bats. He hit a two-run bomb to left field in the eighth inning, his sixth homer of the season. Ramos is now batting .336 through 40 games this season.

Zimmerman gets another XBH: After going 4-for-4 with two homers on Saturday night, Zimmerman notched another extra-base hit on Sunday with his double in the fourth inning. Zimmerman now has 10 doubles on the season and 14 extra-base hits in May after posting just four in April. The problem for Zimmerman has been consistency this season in putting together more than two solid games in a row. Just last week he had two hits in consecutive games on May 23-24, then went hitless in four straight outings. On May 10 he had two homers, but that was during a stretch where he went 5-for-37 across nine games. It has truly been feast or famine for the Nats' first baseman this season.

Harper drives in a run: Harper's RBI single to score Michael Taylor in the fourth inning gave him his fourth straight game with a hit. He also has an RBI in five of his last eight games despite only having four hits during that stretch. Harper has scored a run in four straight outings. Overall, though, it was another frustrating day for Harper, who went 1-for-4 with a strikeout. After he popped out in the sixth, he was shown on a television replay chucking his batting helmet in the dugout.

Strasburg left in, then pulled: Strasburg's exit after six innings was part of some creative managing for Dusty Baker. He sent Strasburg out to start the seventh after 104 pitches, but then brought in Oliver Perez before Strasburg even threw a pitch in the inning. He called on Perez once Cardinals manager Mike Matheny brought in Kolten Wong as a pinch-hitter. And once Matheny saw Perez come in, he replaced Wong with Aledmys Diaz to pinch-hit. There was a pitching change and two pinch-hitters inserted into the game all before a single pitch was thrown. The Nats, by the way, have now won all 11 of Strasburg's starts this season and 15 in a row dating back to 2015.

Up next: The Nats embark on a long road trip beginning with three games in Philly. They play three at the Phillies, then three at the Reds and White Sox. Monday night will be a 7:05 p.m. start with Tanner Roark (3-4, 2.71) set to pitch opposite Phillies right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (4-3, 3.97).