ATLANTA — His overall numbers — 3.13 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, nearly one strikeout per inning — are by no means cause for alarm. Those are the numbers you'd expect from a good major-league pitcher.
With Stephen Strasburg, though, the bar has been set exceedingly high, in part due to the hype surrounding the young right-hander but mostly by his own doing over parts of the last four seasons with the Nationals. So when Strasburg fails to live up to the beyond-lofty standards everyone has for him, it's only natural to wonder if he's 100 percent healthy.
After Monday night's 3-2 loss to the Braves, manager Davey Johnson suggested his ace isn't, that he was dealing with forearm tightness that required a postgame examination, that it's too early to know whether he'll make his next scheduled start or not. Strasburg refused even to acknowledge any physical issue and insisted he's "not missing my next start, I'll tell you right now."
This much is certain: Through his first six starts of 2013, Strasburg may be pitching well enough to give his team a chance, but he's not pitching well enough to be considered the ace of a World Series contender. And whatever is going on with his right arm at the moment is of more concern to his manager than the fact his team just lost its eighth straight game to its chief division rival.
"Yeah, that overrides everything," Johnson said. "Hopefully he's going to be all right. We'll just have to wait and see."
Strasburg labored throughout this start, from the moment he walked Atlanta leadoff man Jordan Schafer until he finally started to click in his sixth and final inning, striking out the side with a flourish. In between, he frequently shook his arm between pitches, pawed at the Turner Field mound and glared at anyone he encountered (umpires, teammates, pitching coach Steve McCatty).
Velocity-wise, Strasburg was fine. His final two pitches of the night registered 97 mph, producing his eighth strikeout in six innings. But his manager was concerned enough not to let him stay in what was then a 2-2 game, asking McCatty to talk to his young starter "because he doesn't look right to me."
"He was still throwing the ball real hard," Johnson said. "But I told [McCatty] when he went out for the sixth: 'Get him out of this, and I'll get him out of there and get you a win.' ... He was still throwing good. But his command was way off, so I knew something was off."
That much was obvious to everyone in the park.
"I mean, you could see a little bit, shaking his arm a little bit," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But Stras is not going to say anything. He's going to go out there and compete. The last pitch he threw was 97, so he looked like he was fine."
Johnson described Strasburg's condition as "a little tightness, I think in his forearm." He said the right-hander was being looked at by doctors, and that "they're going to put him on some medication."
What about Strasburg's status for his next scheduled start, Saturday in Pittsburgh?
"Too early," Johnson said. "But I'm sure he's going to be examined every which way you look at."
Some 30 minutes later, Strasburg suggested there was nothing wrong with his forearm.
"I felt good out there today," he said. "Just battling through commanding the fastball, commanding off-speed. It was just one of those days."
On the repeated shaking of his arm: "Just trying to stay loose and stuff. Look at any pitcher. It's not like they're standing out there like robots. Everybody's going to be trying to stay loose."
At the time of Strasburg's departure, the Nationals and Braves were deadlocked in a 2-2 game, each team taking advantage of the opposing starter's struggles — the Nats rapped out 10 hits in only 5 1/3 innings against Julio Teheran — yet neither taking full enough advantage to produce more than those two runs.
The game turned into a battle of bullpens, with Atlanta's relief corps proving un-hittable — Jordan Walden, Eric O'Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel combined to retire all 11 batters they faced — and Washington's unit just hittable enough to surrender the game-winning run.
Tyler Clippard replaced Strasburg for the bottom of the seventh and immediately committed the same sin his starter had three times in this game: He walked the leadoff batter. As was the case two previous times, that batter wound up coming around to score, this time on Andrelton Simmons' sacrifice fly to right.
"Obviously, you don't want to walk the leadoff guy, you're never trying to do that," Clippard said. "But I've done it plenty of times in my career and gotten out of it. It's one of those things. I've got all the confidence in the world that runner is not moving off of first. I was just really up in the zone tonight and wasn't able to execute to stop them from scoring."
Thus the Nationals suffered another close loss to the Braves, their fourth straight this season (three by two runs or fewer). They trail their rivals by 3 1/2 games in the NL East, hardly an insurmountable deficit, especially with the calendar still reading April for one more day.
But what has already been an inconsistent month of baseball for the defending division champs now has another potentially significant development. The Nationals will hope Strasburg's arm is fine, at the same time knowing there's a chance it's not.
Before their ace takes the mound again, though, they'll need to figure out how to work out their other kinks. Especially against a Braves club that so far has been impossible to beat.
"We just haven't played very good against them," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "Kind of beat ourselves. And they've played good. They've been hot. Not as they were when we played them at home, but they've played good enough to win the games. We've played bad enough to lose.
"It'll turn around. I still believe in our club and think we got the best team. Time will tell."