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Stephen Strasburg is back ... but still building

Stephen Strasburg returned to the majors last night, and he struggled, but he felt good when he was done, and that’s a big deal...

Washington Nationals v. Miami Marlins Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Before his start in Miami, Stephen Strasburg’s last outing in the majors was back on June 1, 2021 in Atlanta, GA. In the two years since he helped Washington win the first World Series by a D.C.-based team since 1924, then signed a 7-year/$245M free agent deal after briefly testing the market, the 2009 Nationals’ No. 1 overall pick made just seven starts for the club, with a (1-3) record, 5.74 ERA, and 5.69 FIP in 26 23 innings on the mound in those outings.

Surgeries for carpal tunnel neuritis and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome cost Strasburg most of the 2020 and ‘21 seasons, respectively, so the 33-year-old, 12-year veteran decided a slow, methodical build-up to his return was the right path this spring, rather than a rushed, three-week run-up teams had to deal with once the lockout ended back in March.

“In general, pitchers need more than three weeks to prepare for a 162-game season,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo explained before the 2022 season opener.

“That’s always — Spring Training is really built for the pitchers.

“In a normal Spring Training, you have 5 1/2, six weeks to prepare pitchers and you build them up to get to their 100-105 pitches to start Opening Day.”

Some pitchers came in hot, others were slow to start, and the club made the necessary adjustments once everyone was in West Palm Beach, FL.

“When Spring Training did start in earnest, some people got out of the chute well and went too fast and we had to slow them back down,” Rizzo explained, “... and some people started slowly, and are progressing at their normal rate, but not at the rate where they’re stretched out for a typical beginning of the season.”

Strasburg was one of those pitchers who went too fast. So the club slowed him down, and the process of then building him back up resulted in the right-hander being out of the big league rotation in the first two-plus months of the season.

“Stras came into the shortened Spring Training in Spring Training-prepared-to-pitch mode,” Rizzo said, “... and he was one of those guys I was speaking about. He got out of the chute really fast, and then we had to slow him down, because it was too fast ... and too short of a situation, but he’s throwing. He stayed back in Florida, he’s working really hard in Florida to get him stretched out.

“He feels good, we’ve done a good job with the pitching coaches, and our pitching analysts to tweak his delivery and get him in a comfortable delivery mode where it takes pressure off his arm, and he’s feeling good about it.”

Following three rehab starts at the end of a long rehab process, the Nationals and Strasburg decided he was good to go, after he’d put up a 1.98 ERA (3 ER in 13 2⁄3 IP) in starts for Single-A Fredericksburg and Triple-A Rochester.

What did the Nationals’ brass like watching those outings that convinced them Strasburg was ready?

“It was a combination of everything, but my biggest thing was his mechanics,” manager Davey Martinez said earlier this week.

“And honing in on his mechanics a little bit, and his last two outings they were really, really sharp, and he was able to get back to where we felt like he was prior. Made some adjustments, but we felt like, hey, he can get back, if something goes awry, then the next pitch he figured it out and he got right back on there and threw strikes. He was good. The last two outings he was very good. He’s excited. I know we’re excited to have him back. So he’ll be on the mound Thursday.”

Going into the start, Martinez said he’d be watching closely as Strasburg made his 2022 big league debut in Miami.

“We’re going to keep an eye on — as [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey and I have talked about, just his mechanics. He’s changed some things. Where he’s at in the game, high-leverage, how many pitches he throws per inning. The time in-between innings, I think that’s really going to be something for him — just keeping an eye on the time between innings so that he’s not sitting there for a long period of time.”

“Things might happen throughout the course of the game,” he added, “... but there’s going to be conversation between Hickey, myself, and him throughout the game to see how he’s doing.

“I want to keep it as normal as possible with him, I really do. And just let him go out there and like I said, focus on getting each hitter out, focus on each pitch, and then see where it takes us.”

Strasburg gave up eight hits, two walks, and seven runs in 4 23 IP, over which he threw 83 pitches, 53 strikes in his return to the majors.

In the first, it was a bunt single, two-out walk, RBI double, and a two-run single which put the Marlins up 3-0 after one.

Strasburg struck out the side in a 12-pitch second, stranded a leadoff hit-by-pitch in an 11-pitch third, then erased a one-out walk with an inning-ending 5-4-3 in a 13-pitch bottom of the fourth which left him at 61 total after four.

In the home-half of the fifth, a one-out single, RBI double, wild pitch, RBI single, and a two-out, two-run home run brought an end to Strasburg’s outing.

Stephen Strasburg’s Line: 4.2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 5 Ks, 1 HR, 83 P, 53 S, 3/2 GO/FO.

He generated just six swinging strikes, but recorded 23 called strikes, seven with his sinker, seven with his curve, five with his changeup, and four with his four-seamer, which sat at 90 and got up to 91+. Strasburg’s sinker sat 90-92 as he continued to build up arm strength.

“He didn’t throw 93-94s, but his fastball had a little bit of oomph at the end of it,” Martinez said after the Nationals were swept in three-straight with a 7-4 loss.

“So whether it cut, whether he was throwing two-seamers, it was late action. So that was good. And now it’s just a matter of getting him back out there and getting him going. I told him, I think the velo will come as you keep going out there and you keep progressing, but for me, I thought he looked good, and I thought he threw the ball well, so I think now it’s just getting back out there, getting him comfortable again up here in the major leagues, and getting him out there and getting some repetitions.”

“I thought he looked good. He really did. But I told him after the game, we talked after the game for a minute: He said he felt good. He missed some location with some pitches. But he felt good. We were looking at his mechanics, his mechanics were good.”

As he’d mentioned earlier, Martinez said, he thought the long top of the fifth, in which the Nationals scored their first two runs, might have played a role in Strasburg’s struggles late in the outing.

“Yeah, that could have played a role, it really could have,” the fifth-year skipper said.

“We talked about that before the game, we’ve got to watch how long these innings go in-between, but you know, we thought we could get another inning or two out of him, it didn’t happen today, but that will come.

“Like I said, he understands the game, he tries to keep himself loose, but I really believe that having him on the mound was good for the Washington Nationals, good for the fans, and the results will be there.”

With Strasburg up to 83 pitches, and the Nationals trailing 7-2 after he got hit around in the fifth, Martinez made the decision to go to the bullpen.

“I thought he looked good. Like I said. He felt good, I didn’t see any fatigue, I just — he had 80-something pitches when I pulled him out, and I thought that was good enough.

“He went back on the mound like he wanted to finish the inning, and I said that was good.

“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He’ll go through his routine now, and we’ll get him back out there in five days. But it’s really good to have him back, it really is.”