PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg stepped off the mound upon recording the final out of the seventh inning Friday night and made the long walk back to the dugout, where handshakes and high-fives awaited.
He could, in that moment, take a deep breath and know that his season was over. Even if it ended a bit sooner than he or the Nationals expected when it began.
"I think we all hoped to be playing still, past the regular season," said Strasburg, who emerged with one last win in the Nationals' 8-4 victory over the Diamondbacks. "And for one reason or another, it just didn't happen."
The Nationals will break for the winter on Sunday, still trying to figure out why they failed to reach the postseason. And Strasburg will head home to San Diego still trying to figure out why his 2013, while impressive in so many ways, still left him unfulfilled.
"I mean, I put more pressure on myself than anybody," he said. "I think I have to step back a few times and not be so hard on myself. Because I honestly do expect to throw a no-hitter out there every time. It still hasn't happened, but I expect it to."
It didn't happen this year, but Strasburg's final numbers were more than adequate. He made 30 starts, totaled 183 innings, posted a 3.00 ERA that ranked ninth in the NL and a 1.05 WHIP that ranked sixth, struck out 191 batters and tossed the first shutout of his career.
So why the sense of unfulfillment? It mostly has to do with Strasburg's pedestrian 8-9 record, a product partly attributable to his league-worst run support.
"We didn't score him any runs," manager Davey Johnson said. "We, a bunch of times, didn't score any runs, or one or two runs, when he was starting. His numbers indicate he should have won 15 ballgames."
For historical context, Strasburg's numbers this season were highly unusual. He's only the fourth pitcher since World War II to make at least 30 starts, post an ERA of 3.00 or better and fail to earn even nine wins. Perhaps he can take some comfort knowing two of the other three names on that list are Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan (8-16, 2.76 in 1987) and soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw (8-8, 2.79 in 2009).
Certainly the lack of run support played a role, but Strasburg himself admits he could have done a better job battling through negative developments.
"I think there's a lot of things I can improve on," he said. "But I think the one thing I did a good job improving on from the beginning of the season was that the things that happened that were unexpected, I tried not to let that affect me as much and carry over to the next pitch. Obviously there were a lot of crazy things that happened this year for me and for this team. I think that's one thing we learned as a group: It all doesn't matter. It's all about how you respond to it."
Fellow Nationals concur: Strasburg made strides this season, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.
"I think he's got a really high ceiling," said right fielder Jayson Werth, whose 448-foot, 3-run homer on Friday helped pace the Nationals' offensive attack. "I think everybody knows that. Just the time I've spent with him, playing with him, he's got a long way to go to reach what he's capable of doing. But what he did this year was great. He pitched good. I think there's a lot more in the tank."
Among the most important steps Strasburg took this year: He pitched a full season, missing only a couple of starts due to minor injuries. His surgically repaired elbow held up through more starts and innings than he had ever thrown. And he moved beyond last year's controversial early-September shutdown.
"I think physically I held up pretty well," he said. "I think the one thing I learned is that sometimes less can be more. I work really hard, but I get to the point in September where I've got to back things off some or else I'm going to be cooked."
Despite the steps he took, Strasburg didn't wind up leading the Nationals in wins (Jordan Zimmermann had 19), innings (Zimmermann had 213 1/3) or strikeouts (Gio Gonzalez has 192, with perhaps one more start on Sunday). He remains one of the most physically gifted pitchers in baseball, but he may not be considered the ace of his own team at this point.
It's up to Strasburg now to take that next step in his development.
"He's getting to be the complete pitcher," Johnson said. "He's awfully good as it is. But there's a little room in there for improvement."