Stephen Strasburg was clearly not himself Tuesday night, but after he and his team landed on the wrong side of a lopsided affair, both the pitcher and his manager seemed more upset about the positioning of a television camera than the final score.
The Nationals dropped a 14-3 decision to the Cardinals, who jumped out to a four-run lead in the third inning before blowing the game open with a nine-run fifth.
Just six days after he blanked the Braves over six innings in his season-debut, Strasburg was pelted for eight runs (seven earned) on eight hits and five walks, tying a career-high in the latter. Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Matt Carpenter all went deep against Strasburg, pacing the Cardinals’ 15-hit attack.
“I just threw a lot of poor pitches,” Strasburg said. “And they made me pay for it."
Following the Cardinals’ four-run third, a TV camera showed Strasburg sitting in a chair in the tunnel behind the Nationals dugout, rubbing the area between his neck and right shoulder. Whether he worked out those kinks or not, Strasburg returned to the mound for the fourth and again in the fifth, where he faced just three batters before exiting.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez said Strasburg “never complained about any shoulder issues or anything” during his outing, quashing any speculation that the right-hander was dealing with an injury. Given Strasburg’s velocity dip, it was understandable to wonder whether he was trying to pitch through a physical issue. That a camera showed him tending to the area near his shoulder only furthered that speculation, something that was particularly bothersome to both Martinez and Strasburg.
“Quite honestly, that shot shouldn't have been shown, so I'm a little perturbed about that,” Martinez said. “It shouldn't be there. Honestly, that camera, there are rules and regulations about that. It's not supposed to go down in the tunnel. It’s in black and white."
Strasburg took it one step further, calling it a “joke” that the camera caught what he believed to be a private moment.
“There's got to be some sort of safe place in the stadium,” Strasburg said. “There have been plenty of other starts where something is not feeling right, and whether you treat yourself or you have a trainer come treat you, it’s just part of the business. I went out there and I gave it everything I had; it wasn't good enough tonight. There should be some sort of privacy. People don't watch the games on TV to watch some sort of spy camera watching what the player is doing in the tunnel."
Tuesday marked only the second time Strasburg has ever issued five walks in a game, the first since June 13, 2010 - the second start of his career. Although his lack of command was troubling, Strasburg’s lack of velocity was even more alarming.
Strasburg averaged 90.9 mph on his four-seam fastball and 90.6 mph on his sinker, a stark drop from his first start this season, when he averaged 92.8 mph on fastballs. Tuesday was Strasburg’s 243rd career start, and never before had he averaged less than 91.7 mph with his four-seamer or 91.9 mph with his sinker in a single game.
Just as notable were the nine fastballs that clocked in below 90 mph; prior to Tuesday, Strasburg had thrown a total of 16 sub-90 mph fastballs in his entire career. Strasburg pointed to some mechanical adjustments that took some of the heat out of his heater, refusing to further what he referred to as a “narrative” about his diminished velocity.
“It was more of a product of trying to slow things down, unfortunately, to the point where I can just locate a fastball,” Strasburg said. “I understand that extra velocity helps your margin for error, but I think for me, it's just trying to execute the pitch. For whatever reason, I had to try and get it done at that speed and it just didn't work out tonight."
For all intents and purposes, Strasburg is coming back from a lost 2020, having thrown a total of five innings last season. Strasburg’s superb debut last week may have set expectations unreasonably high, but the 12-year veteran has been around long enough to know how to put a disastrous outing in the rear-view mirror.
“Over the course of the season, you're going to make 32 or 33 starts; there's going to be typically five or six that are very bad,” Strasburg said. “I'm going to just try and turn the page, try and have the short-term memory, and really just continue to focus on the process and focus on everything that I do in between to be the best that I can on start day."