A close reading of Stephen Strasburg's Nationals history yields at least one reliable truth: When he struggles - really struggles, not just flashes mortal - something is wrong. For example, after he carried a perfect record into July last season, then gave up six and nine runs in back-to-back August starts, Strasburg was not just regressing to the mean. He was hurt, with a torn pronator tendon in his right arm.
So when Strasburg gave up six runs on seven hits in two bruising innings last week against the Cardinals, Dusty Baker said, "that was a sure sign that something was going on."
That something, Strasburg admitted, was that he was tipping pitches. Pitching coach Mike Maddux - who noticed the same thing in Tanner Roark early last year and quickly corrected it - found the problem while scrutinizing video before his start against the Tigers on Monday.
Strasburg is experimenting with throwing exclusively from the stretch this spring, something he said helps keep his mechanics simple and his delivery smooth. But in focusing on the switch to the stretch full-time, Strasburg fell into a pre-pitch pattern - one the Cardinals recognized after seeing him twice in two starts.
"I always have a tendency to tip pitches. I think it's just the way I grip the ball," Strasburg said. "My hands are pretty big, and if I'm not paying attention, I do little things. They've got everything on video, so they know all the little things that I do."
To correct the problem, Maddux suggested Strasburg set his hands closer to his body. Instead of spinning the ball before coming set - or some similar, less deliberate motion - Strasburg tried to reach into his glove and set his grip right away Monday. The change seemed to work, as Strasburg allowed two runs in four innings and struck out five.
"From some of the swings they were taking on it," Strasburg said. "It didn't seem like they knew what was coming."
The only hitter who seemed to have a jump was Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, who launched a 1-0 fastball high into the left field berm to account for one of the two runs Strasburg allowed in what turned out to be a 3-3 tie.
Strasburg threw to Matt Wieters, who made his second start of the spring Monday. Wieters finished 0 for 2 and is now hitless in his first four at-bats as a National.
Wieters looked somewhat shaky in one of his few defensive chances, bouncing a throw to third when Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias tried to steal the base. But the health of his throwing arm, which is now a full season removed from Tommy John surgery, probably should not be judged on a throw obstructed by a batter doing his best to disrupt the process.
More importantly, at least by any reasonable March standard, Strasburg said his daughter and Wieters's young son are good friends. "They just go crazy together," the 28-year-old ace said.