So far this summer, the Nationals’ transactions log reads like a sign-in sheet to a pitchers-only training room. On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg went to the 10-day injured list with carpal tunnel neuritis of the right hand, after having nerve irritation in his thumb and wrist since early July. Freeman is on the 60-day IL with a mass flexor strain in his throwing elbow. Before him was Will Harris, who had a right groin strain and was activated in Freeman’s place Thursday. And before Harris was Max Scherzer tweaking his hamstring and Roenis Elías going to the 45-day injured list with a flexor strain in his left elbow, a similar injury to Freeman’s.
This is not confined to Washington. The Ringer recently tallied up 30 pitcher arm injuries in the first 10 days of the season, shattering the record of 12. That doesn’t even account for lower-body injuries — like Harris’s groin strain — or arm pain that doesn’t lead to an IL stint. Corey Kluber, Mike Soroka and Shohei Ohtani probably won’t throw another pitch this year. Justin Verlander might not, either. Tommy Kahnle, a New York Yankees reliever, has already undergone Tommy John surgery.
The sport has spent much of this summer bracing against the novel coronavirus. But the schedule it demanded — a four-month break, a three-week ramp-up, stops and starts during a truncated season — is its own, onerous challenge. One goal is to not let it reverberate beyond this year.
“I really need to know if they’re hurting, because we have to think of the future of this organization, too,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Thursday. “I don’t want to get somebody hurt right now knowing these guys are part of our future moving forward. So if they need to be shut down, they have to be shut down. We have to keep an eye on all this stuff.”
Martinez has called pitcher health a “real concern.” He often wakes up and, after checking the team’s latest coronavirus test results, scans injury reports from around baseball. The problem for Martinez, for team medical staff, for the pitchers themselves, is that it is difficult to find the root of this. There’s no way to accurately connect one case to another, let alone a few dozen into a coherent web of information. At least not at the moment.
There is nothing natural about throwing a baseball as hard as possible, over and over, maybe more than 100 times in the same night. And there’s also nothing natural about winding down in the winter, winding back up in spring, hitting a surprise pause in mid-March and, from there, staging a second offseason without the benefit of communal workout facilities. That’s one commonality that’s easy to see.
“These three weeks of summer camp were not enough,” Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa told reporters in July. “We have a lot of pitchers that, you can tell when you face them that they’re not ready.”
On a video conference call with reporters last month, Minnesota Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli said: “We’ve never seen anything like this before. Does a lot of it have to do with the long break that we had, the differing sets of circumstances that players had to get ready for this season? Probably. The short spring training? Probably. Probably all factors in one way or the other. It’s going to affect every guy a little bit differently.”
Some pitchers threw bullpen sessions in their backyard, enlisting a friend, teammate or local high school player to catch. Others, like Nationals relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, tossed into a net, making it impossible to get real feedback on their pitches. Strasburg pitched to Brandon Snyder, a veteran utility man with the Nationals, and felt good upon arriving to summer training. But soon he felt a tingling, and his hand kept falling asleep in the middle of the night.
When Strasburg missed his first start July 25, he described this season as “kind of a mess to begin with.” That was to explain why he wouldn’t rush back and instead keep two eyes on the bigger picture. But in the weeks since, Strasburg made his season debut, felt more nerve irritation in his hand in the fifth inning, then indicated that he wants to pitch through it.
“It does have an impact on being able to feel the baseball and being able to commit to pitches,” Strasburg had said before his start in Baltimore on Friday. “That’s something I haven’t quite figured out, how to pitch through it.”
That’s a dangerous task in any season. It felt even more so now. Then Strasburg left the Friday outing after just 16 pitches. He was shaking his right hand throughout the four batters he faced, and, like Freeman before him, ambled off with Lessard at his side. Martinez vowed after the game to not pitch Strasburg until the nerve issue was gone. In 13 hours, the star righty went to the IL with six weeks left in the playoff race.
“With everything that he’s gone through in the last few weeks, I told him it’s not only the best thing for you, but us, too, to get you right,” Martinez said of Strasburg, who will undergo tests Monday. “Because we still got baseball. I know it’s a shortened season, but the best of the season is still to come.”
And that leads to another, ever-present hurdle: time.
Strasburg doesn’t have much of it. No player or team does. Most clubs have played more than a quarter of their 60-game schedules. Many starters won’t reach a maximum 12 starts, because of injuries, cancellations or postponements. Meanwhile, they are trying to iron out their mechanics, get healthy, see if they can make it through summer and into the fall.
Harris, the Nationals’ right-handed setup man, is trying to tweak his delivery to avoid future issues. He identified a past change that led to hernia surgery in March 2019, an abdominal strain this spring and now the groin strain he returned from Thursday. And he tried to address it during 12 days on the IL, though it’s possible the window was too small.
“I’ve been diving into this stuff every minute of every day for the last two weeks,” Harris said on Aug. 10. “I’m hoping I got something.”
Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.
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