Zuckerman: Strasburg Finds His Comfort Zone

Zuckerman: Strasburg Finds His Comfort Zone
July 22, 2010, 4:23 am
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Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:21am

By Mark Zuckerman

CINCINNATI -- As he walked off the field at Great American Ball Park in the sixth inning Wednesday, his Washington Nationals leading the Cincinnati Reds 7-3, Stephen Strasburg was surprised to hear a fan behind the dugout get on his case for merely looking like a very good mortal pitcher.

The soft-spoken rookie stared at the guy and responded: Look at the scoreboard.

Inside the Nationals dugout, Strasburgs teammates perked up.

I was like, Yeah! Tell him, Stras! outfielder Willie Harris said. When you see stuff like that, it shows you hes getting comfortable. Hes believing in himself. Thats huge for him and thats huge for us.

As good as Strasburg has been through the first nine starts of his career, imagine what levels he can take his game to once he really gets comfortable.

The young right-hander perhaps took his first step in that direction Wednesday night. This wasnt his most dominant outing to date -- he allowed three runs and seven hits and couldnt get out of the sixth inning -- but he certainly had his moments in holding the National Leagues most-potent offense in check.

And thanks to some much-needed power from some unlikely sources -- Harris and Cristian Guzman each homered -- Strasburg emerged with his fifth big-league victory, the pitcher of record in the Nationals 8-5 win over the Reds.

A victim of nonexistent run support for much of the last month, Strasburg benefited from a Nationals lineup that scored seven times in a three-inning span, offering him a rare chance to pitch with a sizeable lead.

When Strasburg pitches, we all elevate our game, Harris said. You have to. Hes our horse, and we have to score runs.

Each of Strasburgs nine starts has boasted some type of new challenge, and Wednesdays game was no different. For the first time, he was pitching inside an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark, against a vaunted Cincinnati lineup. No problem. The Reds produced only one extra-base hit: Brandon Phillips third-inning triple. Joey Votto -- the NL leader in homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS -- looked silly trying to hack at Strasburgs changeup and curveball during a first-inning strikeout.

The rookie, now 5-2 with a 2.32 ERA and a 75-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, didnt seem fazed by Great American Ball Parks short dimensions.

Not at all, he said. You should have seen some of the fields I was playing at in college, playing a mile up, on a field thats smaller than this. Ive experienced this before. As long as you execute pitches, it doesnt matter where they hit it, as long as its on the ground. And if they hit it out, so what? Our hitters are hitting in the same park, too.

Strasburg also had to deal with sweltering humidity for the first time, a condition that left his jersey sopping wet and required a change of clothes in mid-game.

It was just so heavy, he said. It was like five extra pounds of sweat on there. It kept falling off.

Strasburg said all this with a smile during what was far and away his most-relaxed media session since arriving six weeks ago. He joked about being able to get his first two sacrifice bunts down after several failed attempts in past games. He joked about celebrating his 22nd birthday charting pitches from a game that was delayed nearly three hours by rain.

With each passing day, Strasburg seems more comfortable with his surroundings. Hes become more forceful with teammates and coaches, is more willing to come up with his own game plan and is more at ease with the hubbub that surrounds every one of his outings. A full house was on hand for this start, the Reds first weeknight sellout in four years.

Its awesome, he said. Its a great atmosphere. Ive been doing it for a little bit over a year now. Its almost expected every time. Its a real blessing to be able to go out there and pitch in front of a lot of fans.

Especially when some of those fans get on his case and bring out a side of Stephen Strasburg rarely seen.

Im just happy to see this guy doing what hes doing and the way he carries himself, Harris said. I mean, hes 22 years old, and none of it really matters to him. His body language tells you everything you need to know about him.

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.