SAN DIEGO — Smoke still pouring into the desert sky from the Diamondbacks’ scorching of Stephen Strasburg the other day, the Nationals nevertheless remain white-hot.

But (whisper voice here) might they be, you know, finally ready to give up on Strasburg given his current 6.06 ERA and 1.71 WHIP while coming off statistically the worst start of his career (eight runs, seven earned in 3.1 innings)?

“He’s got a 3.03 ERA over the past five years, which is right in the top five in baseball,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Yep, we’re ready to stop believing in him.”

The coach was grinning as he spoke Thursday, the kind of smile that is half-joking and half-incredulous.

Keep calm and McCatty on.

Since the Nationals made Strasburg the first overall pick in baseball in 2009, every move the guy makes has been magnified and dissected. Both the erstwhile ace and the club are acutely aware of that.

But while McCatty’s stats are just a bit off—Strasburg’s 3.03 ERA over 97 starts since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2011 entering this season actually stood tied for 14th in the majors, according to STATS LLC—his point is well taken.

No, the Nationals are not overly concerned (yet) with Strasburg’s early struggles.

McCatty’s own scientific deduction?

“You make 34 starts a year, usually in seven or eight you’re going to get your ass beat,” McCatty, now in his seventh season as Nationals pitching coach, told Bleacher Report. “Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee had it happen.

“And at some point, it’s going to happen to Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom.”

Yes, Strasburg’s fastball velocity is down a tick, averaging 94 mph this year as compared to closer to 95 mph last year. And Strasburg mostly still hasn’t lived up to expectations, but is that because he’s underachieved, or is it because the expectations always have been so absurdly high?

He tied Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto for the National League lead last summer with 242 strikeouts and led the Nationals with 215 innings pitched. The problem in the Arizona debacle, McCatty thinks, is two-fold. For one thing, Strasburg threw more sliders and off-speed pitches than the game plan called for. And he left far too many of those up in the zone.

“That was surprising to me,” said McCatty, who talked with Strasburg about that—and other things—in the past 48 hours. “That’s what he got hurt on.”

Other thing is, McCatty said, missing 10 days this spring with a sprained ankle set Strasburg back. Not only did he miss time, but when he did come back, his ankle had to be taped with each start. McCatty believes that pitchers are so finely tuned that a different feel, like a taped ankle, can make them alter their mechanics ever so slightly.

Two starts ago, Strasburg was removed after just three innings with a sore muscle in his back. Initial reports were that he had a sore shoulder, which, of course, caused even more alarm. But McCatty said it was a muscle just under his shoulder blade, which is why the “sore shoulder” tag rocketed through the atmosphere so quickly.

The result of rolling his ankle this spring, McCatty said, was that Strasburg “opened up a little” mechanically instead of driving hard toward the plate in finishing his pitches. Wouldn’t you know it, the Arizona start Tuesday was Strasburg’s first of the season without the ankle tape. So despite the alarming results, McCatty is chalking it up to Strasburg still searching for his groove.

“It happens,” McCatty said. “You know what this is? It’s baseball.”

One person close to Strasburg thinks the pitcher is too humble, that he’s such a nice and unassuming guy that he doesn’t always take his game to the hitter. Instead, the person said, Strasburg sometimes lets hitters dictate outcomes.

When Strasburg relies too much on his off-speed pitches, perhaps there is some truth in this theory. Even though he no longer has a fastball that reaches 100 or 99 mph, it can still be a devastating pitch—particularly when he is locating it properly.

The Nationals think in the long run that ace Max Scherzer will be good for Strasburg on many levels, from the way he competes to simply sharing ideas and strategies.

“It’s still so early in the season,” Scherzer, who noted that the two have talked a little bit, told Bleacher Report. “I’m still getting to know his pitching style, his strengths, his weaknesses.”

Part of that, Scherzer said, is figuring out Strasburg’s avenues to success. What is his swing-and-miss out pitch? How does he follow scouting reports? How does he adjust, in-game and between starts?

Strasburg said he’s talked a little with Scherzer, but also with fellow starters Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister.

“I’m always open to learning something from anybody,” Strasburg told Bleacher Report on Thursday. “Max has had a lot of success.”

This not only is the worst start of Strasburg’s career; it is the worst stretch he has ever endured.

But it also wasn’t that long ago that he fanned the most batters by a D.C. pitcher in 101 years. Those 242 strikeouts last year? Not since Walter “The Big Train” Johnson struck out 243 in 1913 has a Washington pitcher caused that much of a breeze.

“I’m going to stay positive and keep doing my thing,” Strasburg said. “As a pitcher, you’re going to go through situations like this in your career.

“You just have to keep battling and get better.”

To that extent, one knock on Strasburg—and this goes back to his humble nature and, at times, it appears, lack of competitive fire—is his continual bad body language on the mound when things are going poorly.

“We’ve talked about it,” McCatty said. “That has been discussed.

“Like I tell him, ‘Take it with your head held high and your shoulders up. Take an ass beating like a man. When you go down, go down with your guns firing.’”

Too often, there is silent abdication when things are not going well, and that’s the part about having talent as high as the Washington Monument that doesn’t always add up.

So it’s back to the drawing board yet again for the would-be ace and the team that remains the overwhelming favorite to win the NL East. (McCatty also says he has seen no evidence of winter trade rumors distracting his pitcher.)

Strasburg next pitches Sunday in Petco Park, just a few miles away from where he starred at San Diego State University for the beloved late coach and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

You would think that the combination of a rough start, a pounding in Arizona and the sheer pride of wanting to do well in front of a hometown crowd should align the stars in Strasburg’s favor.

Then again, with the enigmatic Strasburg, you can never be sure.

“Everybody is wired differently,” McCatty said. “That’s with everybody. That’s not unique to him.”

Trust yourself, McCatty preaches. Trust your ability.

The pitching coach has faith that Strasburg again will, and that the results will show it.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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