By Gene Wang and Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 22, 2010; 12:00 AM
PHILADELPHIA - It all was humming along for Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg on Saturday night. He had worked into the fifth inning, allowing just a run to a potent Philadelphia lineup that welcomed back slugger Ryan Howard from the disabled list. Then with one pitch, Strasburg's night ended, leaving in doubt the hard-throwing rookie's status for his next start and perhaps beyond.
Facing Domonic Brown, Strasburg delivered a change-up, his third pitch to the batter, and winced after his follow-through. He shook his right hand in distress several times before teammates, a trainer, Manager Jim Riggleman and pitching coach Steve McCatty approached him on the mound.
After a brief exchange, Riggleman pulled Strasburg, who was trying to persuade his manager to leave him in the game. Riggleman wasn't about to budge, and Strasburg exited the 8-1 win before 45,266 at Citizens Bank Park after 4 1/3 innings and 56 pitches, yielding two hits and no walks with six strikeouts.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the game that Strasburg's injury was in the flexor tendon of his right forearm and that the pitcher would undergo an MRI exam Sunday, after which time the club will determine if Strasburg is fit enough to make his next start scheduled for Thursday. There was no swelling in the area in question, according to Rizzo.
"He was throwing the ball very well, and you hate to see anybody show some signs that they're a little tender out there," Riggleman said. "Certainly with Stephen we're going to be careful. We just hope for the best."
Strasburg's early departure came in his third start since the club placed him on the disabled list on July 29 with inflammation in his right shoulder. Strasburg, 22, was scheduled to start a game on July 27, but he experienced discomfort in the shoulder while trying to loosen up shortly before the scheduled first pitch. Taking no chances with their franchise pitcher, the Nationals scratched Strasburg minutes before the start of the game.
The top selection in the 2009 draft made his first start after coming off the disabled list on Aug.10, giving up six hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings against Florida for the worst outing of his brief major league career. He started again on Aug. 15, going five innings and allowed one earned run with seven strikeouts and no walks in a 5-3 victory over Arizona.
Then came another promising start on Saturday night in Philadelphia, where Strasburg was greeted with jeers upon his introduction in his first crack at the Phillies. Strasburg struck out leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins in a 1-2-3 first inning and faced just two batters over the minimum in his next three.
Strasburg began the fifth inning with his sixth strikeout, this time victimizing Raul Ibanez. Brown then stepped to the plate and took two pitches from Strasburg for a 1-1 count before the change-up that sent him to the dugout and left him short of what almost certainly would have been his sixth victory.
"You're always concerned when your pitcher leaves in the middle of a game," said Rizzo, who was sitting in the front row of the stands during the game. "We're going to see what the MRI says, and we'll react accordingly."
Strasburg had no real injury history when the Nationals gave him a record-setting $15.1 million contract a year ago this month, but Saturday night's departure marked the fourth time since joining the organization that he has been scratched or had a start shortened because of injury. In the Arizona Fall League last November, he missed scheduled starts with, respectively, a stiff neck apparently incurred while sleeping and a twisted knee suffered while playing catch in the outfield. Then came last month, when he went to the 15-day disabled list.
The Nationals, who have taken extraordinary steps to safeguard their prized phenom, expected Strasburg to make only four or five additional starts after Saturday, in order to keep him around 160 innings this season, and it is possible the club could shut him down for the season if the injury requires another stay on the disabled list.
"He wanted to stay in the game," Riggleman said. "After the initial feeling that he felt, by the time we got out there, he said, 'I feel good. I don't even feel anything. Let me keep pitching.' We just didn't choose to do that."
This latest setback could be far more concerning than those previous because of the flexor tendon's role in the pitching motion. The tendon attaches above the elbow, near the collateral ligament. If the tendon is torn, Strasburg probably would require surgery. That procedure, to cite one example, cost pitcher Ben Sheets all of the 2009 season and eventually contributed to him needing a ligament-replacement operation-commonly called Tommy John surgery-this month.
The quick exit significantly blunted a polished performance on all fronts for the Nationals, who wasted no time in giving Strasburg plenty of support. They almost batted around in their half of the first inning against Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, scoring three runs before Strasburg set foot on the mound.
The barrage began when Ian Desmond singled and Adam Dunn walked. Ryan Zimmerman grounded to second for the second out, but Roger Bernadina and Adam Kennedy walked consecutively, scoring Desmond. Ivan Rodriguez delivered a single that added two more runs, and it appeared Strasburg would be at the plate before he threw his first pitch. No. 8 hitter Willie Harris, however, grounded to second to end the inning.
Washington continued its assault on Kendrick in the third, beginning with Zimmerman's leadoff double to deep center field. Bernadina singled to move Zimmerman to third, and Kennedy singled for a 4-0 lead. Rodriguez made it three straight singles, prompting a Phillies conference on the mound before Harris struck out with the bases loaded.
Moments later, Strasburg stepped inside the batter's box and took a sharp cut at the first pitch. He put a subsequent pitch in play with a roller Chase Utley scooped and delivered to shortstop Jimmy Rollins for the forceout at second. Rollins then tried to double-up Strasburg at first, but his throw wasn't in time, allowing Bernadina to score and giving Strasburg the first RBI of his big league career.
Bernadina added a three-run homer in the ninth off reliever Chad Durbin for the finishing touches on the Nationals' fourth win in their past 13 games for at least some good feeling on a night when the primary focus was the health of their young ace.
"We played good," Riggleman said. "Just a lot of good at-bats. A lot of good things happened out there tonight."