Sunday June 13th, 2010

If the commonality of a man is that, no matter how famous or successful, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, then the pitchers' corollary is true, too, for the Nationals' wunderkind starter Stephen Strasburg. In his second start, on a 72-degree Cleveland afternoon, television cameras showed him in the dugout between innings, putting his warmup jacket on his throwing arm -- just one arm, just like everyone else.

It also became evident that Strasburg is, in fact, capable of walking batters, something he had not done in his seven-inning, 14-strikeout masterpiece of a major-league debut against the Pirates last Tuesday. He walked five Indians on Sunday.

And he does have physical limitations -- not entirely his own, but those of the Progressive Field mound. With TBS making a late decision to broadcast the game nationally and some 12,000 or so more fans than normal filling the seats, Strasburg again wowed with his stuff, throwing eight first-inning fastballs that registered, in succession, 100-100-100-99-100-100-99-99 miles per hour. But as the matinee ran into later innings, he struggled with his footing, on two occasions even summoning a few members of the groundscrew to fill a hole in the mound where his left foot was landing.

At the end of the game, a 9-4 Nationals victory in which Strasburg picked up his second win in as many outings, his pitching line was a mix of spectacular (eight strikeouts, only one run and two hits allowed) and ordinary (5 1/3 innings, five walks).

But even if he did not officially register a statistical quality start, that's exactly what Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, delivered over 95 pitches on Sunday.

For the second time, he won after the Nationals had lost two in a row while again demonstrating that devastating arsenal of 100-mph four-seam fastballs, hard-breaking curves, sharply falling change-ups and his lesser-used sinking two-seam fastballs.

"What's most impressive is that he throws them all for strikes," Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez said after the game.

With the prohibitive favorite Phillies scuffling, the surging Braves have taken the National League East lead, but the last-place Nationals remain only six games out of first, making the East by far the most neatly packed division in baseball. With Strasburg slated to pitch every fifth day -- not every fifth game, meaning he might often displace other Washington starters -- he could prove to be a difference maker down the stretch, maybe giving the franchise a longshot at playoff contention presuming the club can provide enough offense on days he doesn't pitch.

Strasburg's 22 strikeouts in his first two starts are the second most all-time, trailing only the 27 thrown by Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. His 18 strikeouts before allowing a walk were also second best in baseball history after the 22 from the Reds' Johnny Cueto. Despite those numbers, Strasburg isn't impressed. He said after his first start that "strikeouts are more an accident than anything."

His most impressive inning on Sunday, therefore, was his third inning. After Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner homered in the second, Strasburg settled down in the third, needing only eight pitches to induce three groundball outs.

Even when he faltered for reasons outside his control, Strasburg was diplomatic. Even though the technical difficulties of the mound clearly affected him, he admitted only that he got in a "funk" because he didn't adjust quickly enough and flatly said in a postgame television interview, "You really can't let things like that affect you."

Interspersed were a few glimpses of areas where Strasburg can indeed improve himself, most notably his pitching with runners on base. In start No. 1 on Tuesday he allowed two hits in four such at bats, including the home run to Delwyn Young. On Sunday, Strasburg faced six batters with a man on, and he walked three of them.

And his command wasn't perfect, though it truthfully never will be. The home run allowed to Hafner was, undoubtedly, a poorly-placed pitch. Strasburg's 99 mph fastball was at Hafner's knees and middle-in on the plate: right in a lefty power-hitter's wheelhouse.

The second hit was a 97-mph fastball that top Indians' prospect, catcher Carlos Santana, hit a soft liner to right field for a single. It was notable that Santana pulled a high Strasburg fastball, but had his bat not broken on contact, the ball would have been struck more solidly and might have landed in right fielder Roger Bernardina's glove, rather in front of him.

Both hits harkened the scouting report given by Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeño Tuesday night. Cedeño said that Strasburg's fastball, though hard, was mostly straight. Asked what advice he'd give to future opponents of Strasburg, Cedeño said, "Get ready for the fastball. I don't want to see breaking balls and changeups from him."

Strasburg agreed after the game, reiterating that "velocity doesn't matter" and adding that what's most important is "you've got to locate it."

Still, though, it's impossible not to note that in his first start his fastballs averaged 97.8 mph while the rest of the Nationals' rotation had managed a major-league worst 87.9 mph. That discrepancy may make his rotation-mates better, for the same reason the Red Sox used to sandwich knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in the rotation between fireballers Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling to accentuate the speed differential.

For it is true that, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, "there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." From Strasburg's fastball to his changeup, from his velocity to the rest of the rotation's velocity, from his success to the franchise's lack of success in Washington, there is nothing but contrast surrounding the Nationals' new ace, for whom the projections of his career are already being placed in epic context.

Sunday's start showed a little of Strasburg's one-sleeve-wearing vulnerability and may have tempered some of the hyperbole, but should do nothing to dissuade the Nationals from thinking their young stud could be -- and might already be -- great.

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