The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stephen Strasburg exits early; Nats’ offense comes to life to snap five-game skid

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg meets with Manager Dave Martinez, left, and team trainer Paul Lessard before being pulled from the game after just 30 pitches with an apparent injury. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ATLANTA — This time, Stephen Strasburg lasted 30 pitches before he walked off the mound with Paul Lessard, the Washington Nationals’ head athletic trainer, and out of sight. There was one down in the second inning at Truist Park on Tuesday night. Strasburg had just been struck by a 109.6-mph comebacker — it hit his glove, then nicked his hand — but already looked uncomfortable on the mound.

After the Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves, 11-6, Manager Dave Martinez announced that Strasburg had tightness in his right trapezius muscle, near the back of his neck and the top of his back, and will undergo an MRI exam Wednesday.

Lessard and Martinez had visited once Strasburg walked Ronald Acuña Jr., the Braves’ first hitter of the game, on four pitches. Strasburg convinced them to let him go a bit longer but couldn’t get the muscle loose between the first and second. That ultimately led to his early exit.

“I was watching him; he kept moving his neck, so we went out there and he said he just feels stiff but he wanted to see if he could pitch through it,” Martinez said of Strasburg, who declined to speak with reporters after the game. “We gave him an opportunity, but he came out for the second inning and it just didn’t look right to me.”

The Nationals were still able to excel behind Juan Soto and a flash of balanced offense. They scored four runs in the fourth and three in the seventh. Soto ripped two singles off Max Fried and a two-run shot off lefty reliever Grant Dayton as he finished with four RBI. Ryan Zimmerman lofted a two-run homer on the first pitch by reliever Edgar Santana. Trea Turner had three hits, and Kyle Schwarber logged a pair of RBI singles. Yan Gomes added a two-run double in the seventh.

Washington’s bullpen covered the final 7⅔ innings, with Austin Voth, Sam Clay, Wander Suero, Daniel Hudson, Paolo Espino and Brad Hand pitching in. But Strasburg’s potential injury clouded a win that snapped a five-game losing streak. This was Strasburg’s third start since he returned from spending more than a month on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. And there is a real possibility that he’ll head there again.

“It’s concerning,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t on my mind all night.”

It would be both a familiar and a frustrating blow for these Nationals (22-29), who are trying to climb out of last place in the National League East. Strasburg, 33, has thrown only 26⅔ innings since signing a seven-year, $240 million contract in December 2019. He missed almost all of last season because of carpal tunnel surgery on his right hand. This April, during a rough start in St. Louis, he was shown rubbing around his trap muscle between innings. He insisted nothing was wrong, then headed to the IL before his next appearance.

Boswell: For the Nats to have hope, they need more from Soto, Strasburg and Corbin

The four-pitch walk to Acuña was the first sign that Strasburg was off again. His fastball velocity hovered between 89 and 90 mph, well below his season average of 92.1. He rolled his neck a few times. To end the first, he struck out Dansby Swanson on a high pitch that registered as an 89-mph change-up on the scoreboard. But it was actually the best heat he could muster.

Strasburg hit for himself in the second, attempting two bunts before he struck out looking. Martinez considered it a bad sign that he chose not to swing. Then Strasburg walked leadoff batter Abraham Almonte and William Contreras rocked that line drive right at him.

Martinez and Lessard looked at each other, talked a bit and headed up the dugout steps. Strasburg stood on the side of the mound, trying to keep them from approaching. But he soon walked away with Lessard, his night done after 1⅓ innings, one hit, one earned run, two walks and that strikeout of Swanson.

“I know he’s frustrated,” Zimmerman said of Strasburg. “... But for us, it’s frustrating, too. Because we know what Stephen can be, and we know that we need that guy if we’re going to get to where we want to go this year. I can tell you it’s not for a lack of effort or for lack of wanting to be out there. I’ve known Stephen for a long time, and he wants the ball as much as anyone else.”

Strasburg was replaced by Voth, and the righty stranded two runners by striking out Acuña with a 95-mph fastball. Voth retired eight straight until, in the fifth, he walked Johan Camargo with one out and Acuña got him back with a two-out, no-doubt homer. That finished Voth’s outing at 50 pitches. But the Nationals had built a lead and kept adding to it. One noticeable change was that they answered Martinez’s call to swing at more early-count fastballs.

Trea Turner chopped Fried’s first pitch of the game, a fastball, to reach with an infield single. Josh Harrison, the next batter, punched an 0-1 fastball to right, setting up Turner to score on Fried’s first wild pitch. Zimmerman’s fourth-inning homer was on a first-pitch fastball from Santana. Both of Schwarber’s RBI knocks were on 0-1 fastballs. Soto’s late homer, his first since May 19 and only his fifth of the year, came on a 2-1 fastball, breaking the trend. It still counted, and it helped shove the Braves to a shouting distance.

“All we’ve been working on the last couple days is just trying to put the ball in the air,” Soto said. “Try to hit the ball square up and put it in the air.”

The insurance was necessary when Clay and Suero allowed three straight two-out singles (and a run) in the fifth, when Hudson yielded another run in the seventh, and when Hand allowed another in the ninth. The Nationals didn’t have to stew on the bullpen hiccups or a possible collapse.

Despite the victory, they had enough to worry about.