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Stephen Strasburg returns to Nationals’ rotation; velocity drops; questions remain

There were some questions raised by Stephen Strasburg’s return to the Washington Nationals’ rotation.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Stephen Strasburg had only started once in the majors since June 8th before taking on the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old righty returned from over a month on the Disabled List dealing with right shoulder inflammation on July 20th, giving up eight hits and six earned runs in 4 23 innings against the Atlanta Braves, but ended up back on the DL with a cervical nerve impingement after that outing.

Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo was asked before the right-hander faced the Phillies, what he expected from Strasburg in his return to the rotation, after he’d thrown only bullpen sessions and sim games while he built up strength this time around.

“Just want him to be Stephen Strasburg, pitch the way he’s capable of pitching,” Rizzo said, “and if he’s Stras then that’s as good as anybody in the league.”

Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez too said he hoped Strasburg, “... goes out and is Stephen Strasburg. I mean, his last couple of bullpens have been really good, been electric, just go out there and compete.”

Matt Wieters didn’t work with Strasburg in any of the throwing sessions, but he said he was excited to see what the starter could do.

“I know he’s been walking around here very positive, upbeat with how it’s been going so it will be good to see him out there again,” Wieters said.

Asked what he’d look for as signs that Strasburg is back to throwing like himself, Wieters said it’s all about consistency.

“Just repeating his delivery,” the veteran catcher explained. “I think any time at this level when you feel healthy and feel strong, with his kind of track record, repeating his delivery is big. His stuff is going to speak for itself, and the more consistent you can be with delivery, the more comfortable he’ll get and the more free — he can probably free up his brain to go out there and cut it loose.”

Martinez said Strasburg would be throwing without restrictions, and it was a boost to the whole team to have him back.

“It’s huge,” Martinez told reporters.

“We win a big game yesterday and today we get Stephen back on the mound, so that’s a big lift for us, it really is. So, like I said, hopefully he goes out there and pitches well and keeps us in the ballgame.

“We win this game, you know, we win the series already, and then we keep going forward.”

Strasburg struck out four of ten Phillies he faced in the first two innings, but also gave up four consecutive hits in the top of the first, with Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Bour hitting back-to-back, two-out doubles before Maikel Franco hit a hanging curve out to left for a two-run home run, 3-0.

Bour was 2 for 2 on the night after he sent a 2-0 fastball out to center field for a two-out solo short in the third, 4-1.

It was tied up at 4-4 when Strasburg took the mound in the fourth and issued a leadoff walk to Nick Williams before giving up a single to left by Jorge Alfaro. His velo was dropping too, with his fastball sitting around 91-92, down from 94-96 early in the start, and the second hit of the inning, and RBI single by Roman Quinn, put the Phillies back on top before Strasburg got an inning-ending 4-6-3 DP out of Cesar Hernandez.

Stephen Strasburg’s Line: 4.0 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 Ks, 2 HRs, 84 P, 51 S.

That was it for his second start since early June. His teammates picked him up and ended up walking off on the Phillies on a two-run home run by Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth.

“It was a work in progress, you know,” Strasburg said after the game. “It’s obviously been a while, so learn some things from it and take it into the next one, but what a finish. That was awesome to watch.”

And the drop in velocity? Neither Strasburg or Martinez seemed overly concerned.

“I don’t really know,” Strasburg admitted. “I mean I saw it too. I’d like to think that it’s — I don’t know if it’s rust, I think it’s just endurance. Hopefully that’s what it is.”

“He said he felt fine,” Martinez said, “and I think he got a little gassed there at the end and I thought that’s good enough. I mean, he competed and I’m proud of him and he went out there when we needed him and he competed.”

“I just thought he was tired,” the manager added. “He came in after that [fourth] inning and we just said, ‘You’re done. You’re gassed.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Perfect. Nice job.”

In hindsight, should Strasburg have made a rehab start or two first? Or was there not time for that with the season winding down?

“No, I mean, he was good to go,” Martinez said. “He threw a lot of bullpens, we got him up to 75-80 pitches and he felt good.”

“I kind of just told them — they asked me if I wanted a rehab assignment and I said we’re kind of at the point of no return,” Strasburg said.

“So I just got to go out there and when you feel good enough to go you go, and luckily we pulled it out tonight.”

The good news? Strasburg’s nerve issue wasn’t a problem.

“It’s just going to take some time and even the doctor said that this nerve issue is not going to just fix itself overnight, it takes a few months, but at least I’m not getting the symptoms anymore,” he explained.

“He was 95-96, but the threw the ball well,” Martinez said, in spite of the early runs the righty gave up.

“That’s his first game back. He pitched a sim game, but that’s his first real game. He didn’t go down and pitch in any games, so I thought he looked real good.”

Strasburg was asked how frustrating it was to sit out while the Nationals struggled, ending up where they are by the time was able to get back.

“Yeah, I don’t really want to get into that anymore,” Strasburg said.

“I spent the last two months just fuming over it, so I was happy to be back out there tonight.”