CLEVELAND -- Watching Stephen Strasburg at Progressive Field on Sunday, you couldn't help but flash back to the madness that was his previous outing in that building.
His first career road start on that day in June 2010 made for one of the more bizarre scenes you'll see in Major League ball -- the home team selling jerseys and T-shirts donning the name of the visiting starter. And what's more, the lines for Strasburg gear had snaked around the concourse. It was "Strasmas," as Indians officials called it, because the hype surrounding Strasburg had driven up ticket and merchandise sales in ways the Indians themselves couldn't.
It was a decidedly different experience this time around, with Strasburg returning from the lat strain in his right lower back that cost him two weeks' worth of starts and taking the loss, despite allowing just one run in five innings. Gone was all that hype and hoopla, and Strasburg will tell you he was never very comfortable with it, anyway.
"I think it's unfortunate the way the media works and how fast information spreads is that you get guys like myself who haven't had a single pitch in the big leagues and they come in with so much hype," he told me recently. "To come in and be the main focus didn't really sit well with me and was kind of embarrassing at times."
Strasburg will never be viewed through a realistic prism. It's a natural byproduct of the attention he received when he entered the league.
And the fascination with the Nats' decision to shut him down last September, in the midst of a playoff race, only makes it more difficult to address the reality of Strasburg vs. the idea of Strasburg, because a common perception (misperception, perhaps) was that the Nats would have won the World Series if only they would have left him alone.
None of us is smart enough to know if that's true. But if we somehow divorce ourselves from the early attention and the shutdown storyline, an honest assessment of Strasburg at this juncture of his career is that we're looking at a 24-year-old not yet settled into the "ace" standing we've been quick to anoint him to.
That's not a knock on Strasburg, just a comment on his relative inexperience. After all, he made just 12 starts in 2010 and five in '11 in the return from Tommy John, and he pitched just 159 1/3 innings with the kid gloves firmly wrapped around him in '12. Add in this lat issue (and his pitch count was, of course, limited in his first start back), and, three calendar years into his big league career, we've still yet to see what an unrestricted, uninjured Strasburg can achieve over a sustained stretch. He didn't even pitch in the eighth inning of a ballgame until his 54th career start, which took place a month ago.
So days like Sunday are a good test of the mental toughness it takes to be an ace. And it's no secret that toughness has been questioned at times. Strasburg was rather unmercifully ripped last month after he lost his cool following a Ryan Zimmerman error and let an inning get away from him in an 8-2 loss to the Cubs.
"Where we needed him to pick us up," manager Davey Johnson had said after that game, "the air went out."
Truth is, the Nats have asked a lot of Strasburg this season. Their defense has been porous in general and particularly when Strasburg is on the mound. His nine unearned runs allowed are the most in baseball. And his teammates certainly don't make up for it on the offensive end, where they're scoring just 3.5 runs per game behind him, including Sunday's game in which they stranded seven runners and went 2-for-11 with men in scoring position.
"Call it bad luck, bad playing, whatever you want," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, "but we're finding ways to not get it done."
That's been the theme of a Nats team stuck in neutral, and it's put undue pressure on the pitching staff.
How Strasburg, in particular, responds is a focal point, because everything involving Strasburg and his development into an elite arm is a focal point. That unraveling act against the Cubs seems more exception than rule, because, in conversation, Strasburg demonstrates an increasing understanding that there is so much about this game simply out of his control.
"It's going to happen to everybody," he said. "I think watching how Jordan [Zimmermann] handled it last year helps. He's no different this year than last year. I'm trying to not let the little things affect me. Giving up a run here or there is not the end of the world."
Strasburg's greater focus needs to be on the command that will allow him to more consistently pitch into the eighth. That command was certainly spotty Sunday -- he fell behind 14 of the 19 hitters he faced and threw only 53.7 percent of his pitches for strikes -- but rust was expected in the return from the DL. Just before he got hurt, Strasburg had been showing signs of improved efficiency, needing 117, 108 and 112 pitches, respectively, to get through eight (May 16), seven (May 21) and eight (May 26) innings in consecutive starts.
Maybe this conversation is a lot less fun than the breathless enthusiasm (and T-shirt sales) that erupted upon Strasburg's arrival to the bigs, but this is a lot more realistic. Pitching is a process, as Bob Feller warned us (as only Feller could) that day in Cleveland three years ago.
"Call me," Feller had said, "when he wins his first 100."
Strasburg might get there someday. But not without a lot more learning and, yes, a lot more help from his supporting cast.