May 13, 2015, 2:49 AM EDT
PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg has never pitched like this, not for a somewhat-prolonged stretch. At least not since he came into anyone’s consciousness outside of his hometown of San Diego.
Not in three seasons of college. Not in his two months in the minors. Not since he made his major-league debut nearly five years ago.
The numbers, in the wake of a 14-6 thrashing at the hands of the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night, have become alarming. Strasburg’s 6.06 ERA ranks 106th out of 112 qualified major-league starters. His .327 opponents’ batting average ranks 110th. His 1.71 WHIP ranks 111th.
And neither Strasburg nor the Nationals seem to have a firm grasp how to solve the problem.
“I’m just embarrassed I let the team down,” the right-hander said after giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings Tuesday night at Chase Field. “It sucks. I’m just trying to go out there and help this team win some games. I didn’t do that tonight.”
Once among the most-feared pitchers in the game, Strasburg brought zero intimidation factor to the mound with him in this start. The Diamondbacks hammered him from the get-go, with eight of the 20 batters he faced recording hits, four of them for extra bases, two of them clearing the fence.
His velocity — his fastball averaged 96 mph and topped out at 98 mph — wasn’t the problem. But his command certainly was, with six of the eight hits he surrendered coming on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone.
“I left a lot of pitches up,” he said. “I didn’t hit a spot. They’re a good-hitting team. I’ve got to do better.”
And so the obvious questions that were raised after this outing were about Strasburg’s mechanics, whether he feels 100 percent healthy and whether those two things could be related. Seven days removed from another abbreviated start in which he complained of discomfort underneath his shoulder blade, requiring a chiropractic adjustment, Strasburg’s performance was no better.
Matt Williams insisted health was not an issue.
“The concern coming out of the last one was his health,” the manager said. “And I think he passed that one, which is good.”
Strasburg was less definitive when asked if his back felt fine during Tuesday’s game.
“Yeah, it’s good enough,” he said.
Whether health or mechanics are part of the equation right now or not, Strasburg’s batterymate believes there’s a more fundamental reason for the right-hander’s struggles.
“I think he’s thinking too much,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “In this game, when you’re thinking too much, it’s hard to do everything right. It’s like, for example, a hitter. When a hitter’s going to the plate and thinking too much, you’re not going to hit the ball well. It happens, too, with a pitcher. He has to go out there and fight and try to do the best he can. You can’t go out and think too much. I think that’s what’s happening with him right now.”
Ramos was hopeful when Strasburg took the mound on Tuesday, excited about the way he threw warming up in the bullpen — “Today is probably going to be a good game,” he thought to himself — but then surprised when none of that carried over.
“I don’t know what was happening with him,” the catcher said. “It was really different on the mound from the bullpen.”
With Strasburg’s fastball command off, his curveball flat and his changeup ineffective, Ramos resorted to calling nine sliders, a pitch Strasburg rarely throws to begin with. That worked briefly but then backfired when Mark Trumbo destroyed the right-hander’s final pitch of the night (an 89 mph slider) to left for a 3-run homer.
Williams trudged out of the dugout to take the ball from his starter, and Strasburg trudged back to the clubhouse. His pitching stats place him squarely near the bottom of the sport for the first time in his career, and now he must find some way to get himself back on track.
“Just keep my head down, keep working hard, keep battling, keep fighting,” he said.
“I just know that he’s got great stuff,” Williams added. “His stuff will show itself in the end. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. It hasn’t been his best stretch, but he’s a competitor.”
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