But the journey back from injury has been painstaking, so spirited banter between Strasburg and Martinez foreshadowed what was shaping up to be no ordinary evening against the Baltimore Orioles at Nationals Park, where capacity limits are rising and face covering requirements relaxed.
It wasn’t the complete masterpiece Strasburg has produced time and again, but the standing ovation he received in sparking the Nationals to a 4-2 triumph came after grinding through 5⅓ innings on 72 pitches, yielding just one hit with four strikeouts and walking four, one short of his career high.
“I thought he did really, really well for his first day back," Martinez said. “Now we’ve just got to build him up and keep him healthy.”
Control issues aside, Strasburg permitted only one runner past first base to help Washington (18-23) claim the opener in the three-game series dubbed (by MLB) the Battle of the Beltways. Nine of his 16 outs came via groundballs. Three others were on flyballs, none of which made it to the warning track.
And most important, Strasburg did not show any discomfort from the right shoulder ailment that has kept him out of a stacked rotation that is rounding into full health with the Nationals seeking to string together wins in a bid to climb out of last place in the National League East.
Strasburg got support in the fifth courtesy of a two-out RBI from left fielder Kyle Schwarber and second baseman Josh Harrison. Washington added a run in the sixth and eighth, and relievers Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero and Daniel Hudson combined to allow one hit.
Closer Brad Hand surrendered a two-run homer to Freddy Galvis in the ninth before ending the game by getting Maikel Franco to ground out to shortstop Trea Turner in front of an announced crowd of 14,369, the largest this season at Nationals Park.
“I feel like I’ve done this enough times where, yeah, the results are always great, but I think execution standpoint, there’s definitely some room for improvement," Strasburg said. “Again I think it was a step in the right direction, but again I think there’s still some work to be done. It’s still only May, and I feel good coming out of the start."
Strasburg was making his first start with the Nationals since April 13, when he left in the fifth inning with none out after facing three St. Louis Cardinals hitters on the road. He surrendered eight runs that night, seven earned, on eight hits, including three homers, and walked five.
After the Cardinals scored four times in the third inning, a television camera showed Strasburg sitting in a chair in a tunnel behind the dugout rubbing the area between his neck and right shoulder. Controversy swirled when Strasburg and Martinez each expressed displeasure with the footage being aired.
Five days later, the Nationals placed Strasburg on the 10-day injured list. Several weeks afterward he began throwing bullpen sessions and pitching simulated games. Most recently Strasburg started Sunday for the Rochester Red Wings, Washington’s Class AAA affiliate.
He worked 4⅓ scoreless innings that day before being lifted upon reaching his pitch count of 75. Strasburg gave up two hits, walked two and struck out six. His velocity, according to Martinez, touched 93 mph, among the most telling signs Strasburg was physically and mechanically sound enough to start again in the majors.
A dip in velocity invited speculation Strasburg was attempting to pitch through an ailment during his last major league start. He averaged 90.9 mph on his four-seam fastball, down from an average of 92.8 during his first start April 7, when he struck out eight and yielded a lone hit over six innings.
Strasburg bristled at what he has called a “narrative” about his velocity issues, and Martinez backed him by vowing Friday not to put any limitations on the longtime ace who reached 1,500 strikeouts in fewer innings (1,272 ⅓) than any other pitcher in major league history.
His fastball clocked in as high as 94.3 in the first inning against the Orioles (17-27) when Strasburg, following lengthy applause when his name was announced over the public address system, retired the side in order, beginning with a strikeout of leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins, who swung and missed on a two-strike curve.
Strasburg even showed patience at the plate, drawing a walk on a full count in the fourth inning, although he became one of a dozen runners the Nationals left on base on a night they collected 11 hits. Two of those were doubles by Schwarber, and Bell added a double and two singles.
“It’s huge,” Bell said of having Strasburg back. “Look up at the first inning, and he’s pumping 94. We’re all looking around like, ‘He’s back,' you know?' It was a fun ballgame to watch him go out there and do his thing, and we took care of the rest offensively.”