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Stephen Strasburg leaves Sunday’s game after four innings with ‘upper back discomfort’

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When Stephen Strasburg did not head back out to begin the fifth inning in Sunday’s 7-4 win over the Marlins, that he had done so because of upper back discomfort was not immediately obvious. His fastball was a few miles per hour slower than normal, his demeanor more demure than dominant, and his stuff less effective than it had been since he returned from a strained oblique earlier this month. But he was not visibly adjusting his back or neck like he did earlier this season, nor showing frustration.

Still, Strasburg left after throwing 60 pitches in four  innings, allowing seven hits and four runs, all four on home runs. Nationals Manager Matt Williams described the problem as a “recurrence” of the upper back trouble he had earlier this season, which contributed to his first of two 2015 disabled list stints. Asked if this discomfort may lead to a third, Strasburg said, “I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion.”

“I had a little bit of back tightness,” he added. “This is something I kind of dealt with in the middle of the year. Just got some sort of little ball that’s kind of in the back there, can’t really figure out what it is. Sometimes it gets upset, tried to battle through it.”

Williams said Strasburg alerted him to the trouble during the game, but that players “need some prodding” to come out of games.

“Velocity came down a little bit today, so we got him out of there,” Williams said. “Certainly had more pitching to do, but last thing we want to do is change mechanics. Can’t go there.”

Strasburg returned from the disabled list Aug. 8, and dominated in his first four starts after returning, pitching to a 1.73 ERA and striking out 32 batters in 26 innings.

He showed no signs of trouble as the Marlins got him early Sunday. Dee Gordon bunted for a single to lead off the game, perfectly placed up the third-base line. Gordon led the National League in batting average coming into Sunday. Bunts like that one, all but indefensible, are part of the reason why. Ichiro Suzuki doubled behind him. That put Strasburg in an early jam.

As he tried to blow a fastball by bulky first baseman Justin Bour, he missed high-and-tight, out-and-over. Bour smashed it over the right center field fence to give the Marlins a 3-0 lead. Strasburg never really settled. A few innings later, Derek Dietrich hit a similar pitch – mid-90s, not high-90s fastball over the plate – out into the second deck in right.

Strasburg’s fastball never jumped above 96, and he missed with it in the strike zone. He said it was “hit or miss” throughout his outing, his sixth of four innings or fewer this season.

“I felt it a little bit after my last start, but with normal treatment and stuff it went away,” Strasburg said. “It’s something that’s really hard to explain. It’s not really like a muscular thing, it’s just like this little ball that’s there and kind of just affects everything around it. The biggest thing right now is just to get it calmed down the next couple days and hopefully make the next start.”

When Strasburg had similar trouble earlier in the year, treatment and an adjustment made what he called a “night and day” difference, to the point that he felt back to full health “one or two” days later. He hopes that is the case again this time. No further tests are required, since he (sort of) understands the trouble. Strasburg said he just needs “to grind through” the season, then identify a more permanent fix in the offseason.

“It’s kind of just this ball,” he said. “It’s strange. It’s not a cyst, but kind of this little knot that’s there and doesn’t really hurt to the touch, but sometimes when it gets a little bit pissed off with the grind of throwing and everything, it causes everything around it to get a little upset. But like I said, last time it flared up, treated it, and felt great very quickly after that.”

Strasburg would be scheduled to start again Friday night against the Braves.