WASHINGTON - Stephen Strasburg was back on his game Sunday at Nationals Park going six innings, allowing just three hits while striking out six en route to his 12th win of the season as the Nationals wrapped up a seven-game homestand with a 4-1 win over the Marlins.
The big, tall right-hander also learned something about himself in the ever- evolving maturation process of a young pitcher.
Over his last four starts, Strasburg is 2-1 with a no decision. The no decision came back on July 20 in the 11-10 loss to the Braves which started the homestand. He allowed four runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings with three walks and five strikeouts while obviously struggling with his command.
In his next start, Strasburg bounced back with a seven-inning effort against the Mets, allowing one run on four hits while fanning 11. He followed that up with a four-inning effort against the Phillies in the first game of the just-concluded homestand giving up six runs on eight hits.
He was back on track Sunday and the ups and downs of the last three weeks don't concern Nationals manager Davey Johnson because he has seen this before with young pitchers.
"He is just learning about himself and learning about the league," Johnson said. "It's just a process they go through. You know, he had a pretty good game plan and he stuck to it."
The 24-year-old wasn't in any real trouble throughout his outing. He did give up a one-out double to Scott Cousins in the first inning, a one-out single to Jose Reyes in the fourth, a one-out walk to Donovan Solano in the fifth and a one-out single to Cousins in the sixth, each time getting out of the inning with relative ease.
"He started off the first inning the way he should," said Johnson. "There were a couple of balls that were hit hard but the next time around, he pitched them a little different. It's probably the first time he has faced Cousins and (lead-off hitter, Bryan) Peterson"
"So that's the learning curve and then you are getting comfortable with who you're facing and what their strengths are and you're not as anxious," he said.
His teammates were well aware it was a different Strasburg on the hill Sunday than the one they saw the last time out against the Phillies.
"He was great," said Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche. "That was back to the old Stras. When he came in the dugout we could all sense there was a little different attitude there. I don't know if there was something to prove to himself that he still had it or that he was able to bounce back from the last one but whatever it was, he had a little fire today."
It's hard for any pitcher, much less a young one to have four days between starts after a bad outing. You want to get out there and make up for it and without a doubt Sunday, Strasburg was able to do that.
"Yea, the four days in between felt like a long time," Strasburg said. "I was just trying to not over-analyze everything and just move forward. I really didn't change anything. I just wanted to go out there and be a little bit more on top of my game and attack the strike zone a little bit better."
Strasburg can be downright dominant when he is at his best and people around the league are also noticing the maturation process from when he first came into the league.
"He is much better," said Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. "When you have that kind of stuff, you don't need 99 or 98. He just spots the ball very well. He's a better pitcher now, way better pitcher."
"Everything looks just so fluid and easy," said Marlins catcher John Buck. "His fastball is sneaky and his curveball is real sharp and now he's decided to throw a change-up in the mix and that's pretty nasty as well. It's deceptive how fluid he looks. It's not like he's trying to pump up and throw hard like he once did. It's nice and fluid and that gives it that deceptiveness."
It's one thing for others to notice but for Strasburg, who is his hardest critic most of the time, he is starting to realize what Johnson was telling him from the beginning about staying within yourself and letting the talent take over.
"I'm still learning how to pitch and pick up on little things that happen in the game that you can use to your advantage," Strasburg said. "Today was a big step forward for me in that process but there is still a long way to go."
It will be fun to watch the journey.
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