HAGERSTOWN, Md. — He said he still gets “amped up” before he steps to the mound in the first inning. After those initial warmup pitches, the adrenaline rush of being back in the comfortable place that was taken from him nearly a year ago can still be overwhelming for Stephen Strasburg as he continues to work his way back to Nationals Park.
Strasburg’s nerves were palpable as he made his fourth rehabilitation start on Monday, for the Class A Hagerstown Suns. He struggled through a first inning in which he threw 27 pitches, hit a batter for the first time this season, allowed three runners to get on base, and failed to show command of his breaking ball. But Strasburg settled in and managed to rebound well from a difficult outing just five days before.
“Just not having as many reps as I’ve had in the past, just having a long layoff, I just go out there and try to force things a little too much,” Strasburg said of his first-inning struggles in his past two starts. “I’ve just got to go out there and believe in what I have and execute.”
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner were in attendance to watch Strasburg and he did nothing to give them concern as he was clocked at 99 mph and stayed in the 94-96 mph range for the 46 fastballs that he threw. Strasburg threw 60 pitches in all over three innings, allowing two hits and two runs, one earned, with one walk six strikeouts in the Suns’ 3-1 loss to the Hickory Crawdads. He had difficulty getting much other than his fastball to go for strikes, but he is making progress and remains pain-free.
“The stuff is there. The arm is healthy. That’s all we care about,” Rizzo said afterward.
After the game, the 23-year-old said he feels encouraged with the progress that he has made less than a year after having Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his prized right arm.
“Where I am now, I wasn’t expecting to be here, but it’s just the nature of the beast,” Strasburg said. “Injuries are a part of baseball. It was out of my control. I did everything I possibly could to not get hurt. I was just one of the guys who got hit by the bug. So I’ve worked really hard to get to where I’m at and I’m going to keep working hard to get back down there in D.C. and start helping the team win some games.”
Strasburg’s next rehab start is slated for Saturday and he is optimistic that he can return to big leagues by early September. “It felt good,” Strasburg said. “Sixty pitches is a piece of cake. I just wish I did it in four innings or five innings. But it happens. I threw some good pitches in there and I know that once I do get back in D.C., it’s going to be getting used to everything and getting comfortable and that’s just part of the process. There’s little glimpes. They come back.”
Strasburg said he has been “having a tough time” regaining command of all of his pitches but Rizzo mentioned that Jordan Zimmermann experienced the same problems when he returned from Tommy John surgery last season. “Command is the last thing to come around, because it comes with repetition,” he said.
Strasburg’s improvement could be found in his matchup against Crawdads leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar. Strasburg tried to throw a curveball down and inside to the left-handed hitter in the first inning, but the pitch dove right into Profar‘s right knee. The next time he saw Profar leading off the third inning, Strasburg tried his curveball once again and threw a pitch so wicked that Profar hopped back, holding his bat high above his head.
Fearing that the pitch was going to hit him again, Profar instead had to watch as the ball dropped right down the middle of the plate for a strike. After Profar fouled off a few pitches, Strasburg struck him out looking with a hard sinker at the knees.
One year and one day removed from his last major league pitch — a change-up to Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Domonic Brown — Strasburg said he is no longer worried about getting hurt again.
“Once I started pitching in games and stuff, there was no apprehension,” Strasburg said. “Early on, you kind of get those thoughts in your head, but then you just got to tell yourself, ‘I’m with a great organization who is taking care of me who has done everything they possibly can to put me in a good position to excel.’ I’ve worked really hard to get to this point. Bottom line is, you’ve got to trust the work. I know if I keep on plugging along it will work out well.”
Strasburg outings were generally a spectacle, but the crowd was noticeably smaller as he made his third start at Municipal Stadium. Strasburg wasn’t complaining afterward. “It seems like Hagerstown is getting used to me being here,” he said with a smile.