Stephen Strasburg‘s start against the Cubs was, to put it plainly, a disaster. When a Ryan Zimmerman error turned the end of the fifth into a runner on first and two outs, Strasburg fell apart. He walked the Cubs’ 8-hitter and allowed a double to the pitcher to allow two unearned runs, and continued to hang his head and seemingly mope on the mound as he allowed two more runs to score and put the Nationals in a 4-0 hole. He was heavily criticized after the game, with Davey Johnson summarizing everyone’s thoughts: “Where we needed him to pick us up, the air went out.”
Strasburg’s crumbling under adversity had raised its head before in the season, such as when he allowed a two-run homer to Evan Gattis when Zimmerman committed a similar error against the Braves, but his showing against the Cubs was by far the most egregious. But with this boiling-over, there was hope that the problem would be addressed. Whether it would come through a conversation with Davey, or some introspection on Strasburg’s part, fans everywhere hoped he would show some change in his next start.
The moment of reckoning came quickly in Strasburg’s start against the Padres. In the fifth, there were runners on first and second when Kyle Blanks grounded to Zimmerman. His throw to second was high, and he was charged with an error. In some ways, this situation was much more pressured than what happened in Strasburg’s earlier breakdown. Instead of two outs and runners on the corners, the bases were loaded with one out. Against the Cubs, it only took a runner on first as opposed to the inning ending to damage Strasburg’s confidence. Right after the error, however, Strasburg showed that he had learned from his mistakes. Instead of losing focus, he looked over at Zimmerman and nodded, as if to say “Don’t worry; I’ve got your back.”
Strasburg’s gesture was exactly what Davey had meant in saying the team needed Strasburg to “pick us up.” It was a stark change from his immaturity against the Cubs, and an encouraging sign. Even more encouraging was how Strasburg pitched with the bases-loaded jam he was placed in. He minimized the damage, allowing an RBI groundout and then getting a strikeout to send the Padres back to their bench. A pessimist might say the situation was less stressful than his start against Chicago, given that he had a 5-0 lead in San Diego but was tied against the Cubs, but this error loaded the bases and was on the road. Strasburg demonstrated a significant change, and as MASN announcer F.P. Santangelo said, “You might want to circle that moment for the rest of the season.”
Thursday’s start against the Padres was significant for another reason apart from his mental maturing: he pitched into (and completed) the eighth inning for the first time in his career. He also won in his first career start in San Diego, his hometown. On Tuesday, he will face the defending champion San Francisco Giants, who are second in baseball in batting average and eighth in runs scored. Was Thursday’s start the turning point Strasburg needed to get back on the Cy Young campaign many expected for him this year? We’ll find out soon enough.