“Small steps,” Strasburg said. He has to think that way because there’s no point worrying about what’s past and what’s in store for him for the rest of the season when the goal is just to take another mound in another game. in five days.
The results of Strasbourg’s first rehab begin in what has been a frustrating and torturous comeback from surgery to treat chest outlet syndrome – 2⅔ innings and 61 pitches in which he struggled with his command and a treated the expected rust that a year on the shelf would cause – have no bearing and give no indication of what might happen next. But there’s no “sequel” without what happened Tuesday for the Fredericksburg Nationals against the Salem Red Sox. No baby.
“It was good to be there in a competitive situation,” said the 33-year-old. “Now I have a place to start and a place to build.”
The numbers aren’t impressive — four walks, three hits, three strikeouts, three earned runs and just 31 of those 61 pitches for strikes. Message from Strasbourg: Ignore the results. His fastball was everywhere. He spiked breaking balls in front of the plate. Fine. It’s a minor league game that’s a platform to come back to. He threw all his pitches. His shoulder was not tired afterwards. Now he can see a path.
“The command was not good, but the material was breaking like I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Strasburg said. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, the thing is there. Now I just need to refine it a bit more. So that’s kind of the big bright spot that I’ve seen, and that’s the thing where when you’re in Florida pitching backcourt, you’re not going to get that kind of adrenaline that flows.
The Nationals’ downfall since their 2019 World Series championship is in many ways epitomized by Strasbourg. Then he was an October Monster, the World Series MVP who pitched 36⅓ playoff innings, posting a 1.98 ERA with 47 strikeouts and just four walks. He’s since signed a seven-year, $245 million deal that essentially crippled the franchise. In three seasons, he pitched just 26⅔ big league innings.
It’s paralyzing. Strasbourg’s previous appearance in a game in which results counted towards someone’s standings record in certain leagues, regardless of level, was on June 1, 2021, when he faced the Braves in Atlanta and lasted two batters in the second inning. The thoracic outlet syndrome – which he investigated, chased and battled and is now beginning to believe he can overcome – is different from the Tommy John surgery he overcame over a decade ago. There is simply no straight line back, and for so long there was no way of knowing what would happen tomorrow.
“I think the most important thing is that it feels good,” Strasburg said after training in what turned out to be a 6-1 loss at Fredericksburg. “It’s just about getting reps and getting consistency back. You can only simulate this in the bullpen. Thrown a lot of pitches. Arm felt good coming out, and I think that’s like the big thing, building stamina and stuff.
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It was unclear during spring training which started late due to the owners’ lockout and in which Strasbourg never took part in a major league game. That wasn’t true in late spring, when he found himself under MLB’s coronavirus protocols and had to quarantine for 10 days. “Frustrating,” he called the development. Add it to the pile of developments that it might characterize in exactly this way.
“That’s kind of how I felt in spring training, [when] I went there for the first live [batting practice session],” he said. “And that was the first one, but then when I sit down, that’s when I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. Like, where’s my arm? That’s when we got to the point where it’s like we have to get stronger. We have to try to work on some stability.
So, small steps. It’s not just for Strasbourg as a person and a competitor, but for the Nationals as a franchise, what this debut leads to. Imagine if what emerges from this process is a pitcher that looks a bit like the Stephen Strasbourg of 2019. That would give the Nationals an ace this summer and an ace in years to come, when they could challenge for a title again. division. What if he can’t be? Well, then, shiver and pull the covers over your eyes, because $35 million would be tied up every year in a pitcher that can’t pitch.
The Nationals’ record since this World Series is 105-161 — a pace to lose 98 games per season. They are last tied in Eastern Newfoundland in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. They finished last in 162 games last year. They look like a last place team this year. It’s no exaggeration to think that if Strasbourg had been healthy, the club’s record would have been good enough last summer that the Nationals didn’t suffer a massive sell-off – Max Scherzer and Trea Turner and Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes and more – at the trade deadline.
Yet they did. It’s a lot to bear.
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“I think it’s easy for me to put it all on myself, thinking ‘Okay, we’re not playing well because I’m not healthy’,” he said. . “I’ve spent too many sleepless nights thinking that. So finally understand this is what it is and all I can do is keep grinding and keep giving it all I got.
On Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg put behind an ugly line and stuffed the positives into his bag of Nationals gear to pull up I-95. He will sleep in his own bed. He will report to Nationals Park on Wednesday for work. In the next few days, he will launch an enclosure session. And five days later, he’ll head to another minor league mound. They’re small steps, but if the 2019 World Series MVP is to rediscover all that resembles himself — and accelerate the rebuilding of his franchise — every single one of them is needed.