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."