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An ‘achy’ neck leaves Stephen Strasburg with a setback during his rehab process

Stephen Strasburg is on his second injured list stint of the season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Before the all-star break, Stephen Strasburg was nearing a minor league rehab assignment, typically the last step before an injured player is activated. But then Strasburg felt discomfort in his neck following a simulated game in San Diego on July 9. In turn, the Washington Nationals dialed back his rehab process, leading him to throw on flat ground ahead of Saturday night’s matchup with the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park.

“It just didn’t feel right. It felt achy,” Manager Dave Martinez said Saturday afternoon. “My conversation with him was: ‘Let’s back down a little bit, and then we’ll see where you’re at and start throwing when you can.’ So he took a few days off. He threw yesterday, probably going to play catch again today, and we’ll see how he feels.”

Strasburg went on the injured list June 2 with a neck strain that Martinez later classified as “nerve irritation.” Earlier in the year, he missed about a month with a strained right shoulder. Since he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract in December 2019, he has logged just 26⅔ innings (five in a 2020 season shortened by carpal tunnel surgery, then 21⅔ this year). Given Strasburg’s extensive injury history and his importance to this club, the Nationals are again being extra careful with his recovery.

Last time out: The Nationals, already limping, come out of all-star break by getting flattened by Padres

On Saturday, after his manager spoke with reporters, Strasburg walked to right field with an inflatable exercise ball under his left arm. For his first handful of throws with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez, Strasburg kept the exercise ball tucked between his armpit and side. After that, he kept throwing with Martinez, not near 100 percent, and was filmed by video assistant Kenny Diaz. He shot Strasburg’s mechanics from straight on, as if Diaz were at third base, then moved to behind the 32-year-old right-hander. Greg Barajas, one of the team’s athletic trainers, monitored the session.

Washington entered Saturday in fourth place, trailing the New York Mets by six games, in the National League East. Beyond Strasburg, the Nationals have Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Joe Ross, Tanner Rainey, Alex Avila, Kyle McGowin and Will Harris on the injured list, and Starlin Castro is on administrative leave as Major League Baseball investigates a domestic violence allegation.

So if Strasburg can get healthy and become effective in the coming weeks, he represents a pseudo midseason addition, a possible jolt for a rotation that too often has heaped a heavy workload on the bullpen. But if Strasburg can’t return, or if he spends the rest of the year laboring through his outings, there is more reason to doubt the contract framed by his dominant showing in the 2019 postseason.

The Nationals’ belief is that Strasburg remains a long-term pillar. That’s the best way to understand their reaction to any mention of pain. As for their immediate rotation plans, they have Patrick Corbin starting Saturday, Max Scherzer on Sunday and the struggling Jon Lester against the Miami Marlins on Monday. From there, it’s likely Paolo Espino starts Tuesday in place of Ross, who is working back from right elbow inflammation.

“When he does say he felt something, then we need to listen, back off,” Dave Martinez said of Strasburg. “He got treatment. We gave him a few days off. He’s throwing long again. [On Friday], he threw [from 120 feet]. He came in [Saturday], said he felt a lot better. He’ll do it again, and then we’ll see where he’s at from there.

“But when Stephen comes back, I want him to come back and finish the season on the mound and not have this recurrence again.”

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