If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it is patience that gives a baseball team confidence.
The New York Mets were able to tame Washington's uber prospect Stephen Strasburg in his shortest start of his young Major League career on Saturday, even if many of the near 40,000 crowd had left by the time the Nats walked off with the victory in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Strasburg was as good as advertised in many respects, but the Mets were able to build the 21-year-old's pitch count up to 96 and force him out after just five innings. If he missed with his fastball, the Mets would make him throw another one, then another, and then one more. Patience was the key.
Okay, "tame" might not be the most accurate term to describe how the Mets figured out the rookie, but Strasburg did throw more pitches than ever before while striking out the fewest batters in his sixth big league start.
Still, he hit triple digits on his fastball on a sunny and humid day in the nation's capital, and he had a lively changeup that kept the Mets guessing. But Strasburg gave up four hits and three walks, allowing two runs and three walks and leaving on the end of a 2-0 deficit.
Strasburg had pitched into the sixth inning in each of his previous five starts, and in three of these games he did not walk a single guy. He wasn't quite that good on Saturday, but it is important to note than once again he received very little run support.
In the last four games Strasburg has pitched, the Nationals have scored just three runs combined, including the two today.
With no help from his offense, and another dominant outing from journeyman knuckleballer R.A Dickey, Strasburgh was fortunate to pick up a no decision and remain at 2-2 on the year. Dickey should have been 7-1 and he would have been had K-Rod not blown the save.
As nasty as Strasburg's was, New York's batters were able to lay off fastballs away and breaking balls inside at Nationals Park, capitalising instead on patient at-bats and occasional mistakes.
Although he hit 100 MPH on his third pitch of the game, the Mets were able to watch a number of his harder offerings early to force the pitch count up. In many respects, the outing was a carbon copy of his second start against the Indians on June 13 (5.1 IP, 95 pitches, 2H, 1ER, 5BB, 8Ks).
Alex Cora, the second batter Strasburg faced, passed on three consecutive 99-MPH fastballs away to draw a five-pitch walk, and Ike Davis had a pair of good at-bats against the rookie. He was able to lay off a trio of 92-MPH changeups outside to draw a first-inning walk and he fouled off a high-80s changeup and low-80s curve in the third before singling on a fastball to right.
Josh Thole, too, looked good against S.S. He fouled off five-straight pitches before drawing a 10-pitch walk in the first inning and he was able to lay off a pair of curveballs down and in before doubling the Mets lead on a fastball up the middle. Jason Bay had given the Mets the lead in the first inning when he ripped a run-scoring double the other way.
After 37 pitches in the first inning, Strasburg was able to get through the second on just 11 pitches. But with the exception of Angel Pagan—who made three outs on a combined six pitches—the Mets put good swings on the ball and showed exceptional discipline against a very good hurler.
Strasburg started mixing things up more after he had been through the order a couple times, and this seemed to handcuff the Mets a little. Strasburg only threw a fastball four times in the fourth inning and then three times in the fifth—a total of seven times in 22 pitches—but even though he put up zeros he wasn't on the mound to pitch the sixth after topping his previous high pitch count of 95.
Strasburg wasn't terrible by any means, and it may even be a stretch to say that he was simply average on Saturday. He pitched well, but the Mets took a good approach. When they were able to take pitches, they showed that Strasburg was human at times when he was forced to challenge hitters on hitters' counts.
Everyone forgets that Strasburg is just that...human. All of the hype and accolades will probably be well-deserved by the end of the year, but teams will eventually figure him out. Strasburg will have bad days, and if things conspire against him he will lose many more games, probably like he deserved to today.
On a wider note though, this game could be important for the Mets. They need to remain patient at the plate, take pitches, and select their zones. If they can do it against someone like Strasburg, they can do it against else they're likely to face before the All-Star break. It was the right approach to take today, and you could certainly make the case that it's the right approach for every game.
The free-swinging Mets hopefully learned a lesson today, and that can only be positive for the rest of the year. The result may not have been what they deserved, but that is baseball.