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Curves keep adding bends to Strasburg's comeback road

August 23, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com
  • Stephen Strasburg made his third start for the Hagerstown Suns this season on Monday night at Municipal Stadium.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Stephen Strasburg is ecstatic with the progress of his comeback from elbow surgery.

The Washington Nationals ace loves the way he is throwing his fastball and changeup during his four rehabilitation starts in Single A.

But there is one aspect for Strasburg that feels like a strained relationship. Right now, breaking pitches are hard to do.

Strasburg dazzled the 1,652 spectators with the velocity and movement of his two comfortable pitches during his third start with the Hagerstown Suns at Municipal Stadium. But the curveball continued to throw the prize right-hander a curve.

“That’s kind of been the kind of thing that I have had a tough time with,” he said. “But as the game went on, I kind of got to trust the break and not go out there and try to throw the filthiest breaking ball ever. It’s the last thing that comes and I’m just going to keep working hard and the more and more times I throw it, the better it’s going to get.”

And that made the outing frustrating at times for Strasburg. Hickory came out looking for the first good fastball to swing at and stayed alive in many cases by just fouling the pitcher’s best off. The lack of a consistent curve continued to put Strasburg at a disadvantage.

“A lot of it is just having command,” Strasburg said. “Having the feeling of your pitches just takes time to come back. You feel great in the bullpen and then you go out there and get amped up. You just have to go out there and settle down a little bit. Sixty pitches were a piece of cake. I just wish I could have made them last four or five innings.”

Overall, Strasburg’s pitching line was more than acceptable for his three-inning stint, his longest with the Suns. He allowed only two hits, a walk, hit a batter and struck out six, but allowed two runs (one earned) while taking the loss in the Suns’ 3-1 defeat.

But like Lexington last Wednesday, Hickory came out swinging against Strasburg and elevated his early pitch count, which limited the length of his outing. The Crawdads picked up a first-inning run when Jrickson Profar was hit by a pitch to lead off the game and stole second to set up Christian Villanueva’s RBI single up the middle.

More importantly, Strasburg threw 27 of his 65 allotted pitches to get out of the first. Last Wednesday, Lexington scored three in the first and saw 33 of the pitcher’s 50-pitch allotment.

“I’m still having the adrenaline in the first inning. It’s to be expected since I have had only four starts in about a year,” Strasburg said. “I just have to try and work on relaxing and control it a little better. I’m amped up for every game I pitch. It’s a matter of feeling comfortable out there. It’s trusting your stuff. You’re able to go out there and make it happen.

“Having such a long layoff, I’m going out there and trying to force a little too much. I’m slowly starting to realize that. I just have to go out there and trust in what I have and execute.”

The only other hit Strasburg allowed was an infield single to Odubel Herrara, who scored on a throwing error for an unearned run that put Hagerstown behind 2-0. It prolonged the inning and took Strasburg out after three.

In all, Strasburg threw 60 pitches, including 37 strikes. Unofficially, only 13 of the 60 pitches were breaking balls. Strasburg kept Hickory off balance with his breaking pitch, but the Crawdads were able to take ample swings at the fastball.

It was Strasburg’s final start for Hagerstown as he nears the end of his 30-day rehabilitation stint in the minors. He was 0-1 with a 9.95 ERA in his three Hagerstown starts. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits and three walks with 13 strikeouts. In his four Single-A rehab starts — including one at Potomac — Strasburg has pitched 9 1/3 innings, allowing eight runs on 11 hits and three walks while striking out 18, good for a 6.75 ERA.

From here, Strasburg may have a start or two further up the minor league ladder before he gets a chance to start for the Nationals some time in September. By then, the 23-year-old wants to have a lot of the big work finished.

“There’s little glimpses,” Strasburg said. “They come back where there’s a hitter or two or an inning. After the first inning, I had command of the first ball pretty well and the changeup has been there since I started throwing off the mound. It’s one pitch that I’m trying to get back and it’s to be expected.

“Talking to (Nationals pitching coach Steve) McCatty the last few days helped me establish a mindset on how to throw that pitch. Now it is a matter of proving it to myself and the only way I’m going to do that is by keep throwing it. It’s still not where it was. There is always going to be room for improvement. My other pitches are better than they were before. I’m just waiting for that last one to be the same.”

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