Pressure has arguably been one of the defining words of Stephen Strasburg’s baseball career to this point. You wouldn’t know it from his trademark stoic expression though.
As he established himself as one of the best collegiate pitchers in the country at San Diego State, the pressure was on him on a weekly basis to perform to that standard.
The pressure was further on him when the Washington Nationals took him with the first overall pick in 2009, and as he made his way through the minor leagues as one of the best pitching prospects in a generation. The team needed him to live up to the hype.
And when he finally made it to the major leagues, the Nationals were thrust into contention in the National League East. The organization was built on the foundation of pitching, and Strasburg was the headliner, or co-headliner with Max Scherzer, for the next decade.
For the most part, Strasburg has lived up to the expectations.
Yes, injuries have held him back from doing so emphatically, but with the career that the right-hander has had so far as well as a World Series title and World Series MVP side-by-side on your mantle, it’s fair to say that you’ve handled the pressure pretty well.
However, following Thoracic Outlet Surgery that ruled him out for most of the 2021 season, Strasburg returns to a very different team with very different expectations than the one he left.
The team is floundering in last place of the division with a 21-36 record, and an emphasis has been placed on developing younger players and one-year veterans to try and flip in July.
Strasburg doesn’t have the weight of a team and fanbase on his shoulders anymore. Given the state of the organization and the severity of the injury he’s returning from, the fact he’s back on a major league mound again is the important thing. Now all he needs to do is pitch.
“I’m going to take one pitch at a time,” manager Dave Martinez answered when asked about what he’s looking for from Strasburg. “The good thing is that he feels good, he feels like he’s in a good place.
“Thursday is his day, and we’re going to go with it, and I’m expecting him to go out there and compete.”
Some major league pitchers who have returned from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome have struggled to regain the form they had before, others never even made it back to the majors.
Making it back is just step one for Strasburg, but a pretty big step that took a lot of work.
“I told him, ‘Hey, for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you,’” Martinez said. “I know this has been a difficult time for you, but you worked your butt off to get back. Just go out there and have fun.”
The next step for Strasburg is going to be getting comfortable at the highest level again, potentially with diminished velocity and stuff that other pitchers have seen following TOS. Not that it would be anything new for him, given how his velocity dropped from the regular triple-digits he touched in his major league debut to what he had in the World Series in 2019.
So, with a team that’s a long way out of contention, this season becomes a discovery process for Strasburg, trying to figure out how to pitch with what he has rather than what he had.
That’s all that the Nationals can realistically expect from their right-hander this year.
“I think a realistic expectation is we want him to be Strasburg,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies yesterday. “The typical Stephen Strasburg, when he’s on the mound, give us a chance to win the baseball game.
“We’ll watch him and monitor him closely as far as stuff and when he wears down and that type of thing, but there will be no restrictions or limitations on him. He’s a healthy pitcher and we will treat him such as that, but we’ll treat him as a pitcher that is coming off the [Injured] List, and a guy that we’ll monitor very, very closely.
“We expect him to be himself. His fastball velocity is still coming. His command is good. His breaking ball and changeup have obviously been good in his rehab assignments and it will be fun to see him on a big-league mound competing in an actual big-league game.”
In the long-term, perhaps the seven-year, $245 million contract re-applies the pressure. After all, at some point during the rest of the contract, the Nationals will be hoping to return to contention with Strasburg hopefully still a big part of the rotation when the time comes.
For now though, Nationals fans will just enjoy seeing the franchise icon back where he belongs on a major league mound, a sight for sore eyes in a season that hasn’t had many...