MILWAUKEE — For weeks, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross have followed the same schedule, testing their arms under the beating sun in West Palm Beach, Fla. But on Tuesday, as they progress toward a return to the majors, Strasburg and Ross will split to start minor league rehab assignments.
Ross will be in Harrisburg for two reasons: He’s a bit further along, meaning the club wants to see him against better hitters. And because Strasburg’s recovery is more critical for the Nationals’ present and future, the front office wanted him at a closer site.
The FredNats play 55 miles from Nationals Park. It’s likely more than one team official will get better acquainted with the drive this week.
“Now they’re actually competing in a regular scenario,” Martinez said when asked about the difference between simulated games and rehab starts. “You can’t take them out after 15, 16 pitches an inning. They got to go out there, and they got to compete. They got to get outs.”
Strasburg, 33, is still recovering from last summer’s surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Ross, 29 and on the 60-day injured list, has been sidelined since he had a bone spur removed from his throwing elbow in early March. Strasburg will face the Salem Red Sox at 7:05 p.m. Ross will square off with the Altoona Curve at 6 p.m.
If they both rejoin the rotation, the Nationals (14-28) would have to make choices on two fringe starters, probably affecting Aaron Sanchez and rookie Joan Adon. To do so, Martinez has maintained Strasburg and Ross would need to comfortably throw six innings and 90 pitches. That means, at a minimum, Tuesday’s starts are the first of three appearances with minor league affiliates. If they check those on a five-day schedule, the soonest they could pitch for Washington is June 8.
At American Family Field on Sunday, Sanchez was backed by an offense that scored six runs in the fourth. Despite shaky command, the 29-year-old limited the Brewers (26-15) with three double plays in five innings. He nearly had a fourth, too, but César Hernández couldn’t make a turn in the fifth and permitted a second run to score. Sanchez ultimately threw 89 pitches, 46 for strikes, and was hurt most by a fifth-inning solo shot by Tyrone Taylor. Martinez doesn’t want Sanchez thinking about the spots that could disappear.
“It’s still a ways away. ... They got to continue to build up,” he said of Strasburg and Ross. “It’s honestly a good problem to have. If we get Strasburg and Joe Ross back, we’ll have to make some tough decisions later on. But I want these guys to continue to complete.”
In mid-March, once the Nationals reported for camp, Strasburg admitted he needed at least six weeks — the length of a normal spring training — before he started a regular season game. That took Opening Day out of the question. But once Martinez publicly wished Strasburg would make between 20 and 25 starts, it was clear Strasburg wouldn’t be back until at least mid-May.
That was the most optimistic view. More realistically, Strasburg would surface again in the first weeks of June. Since signing a seven-year, $245 million deal in December 2019, he has pitched only 26⅔ innings. Back-to-back season-ending surgeries have kept that number frustratingly low for the Nationals.
Without him and Ross in 2022, the rotation entered Sunday ranked 29th in ERA (5.58) and 28th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage against (.812). A lot rides, then, on how they feel after throwing Tuesday night. Strasburg has been pitching out of the windup for the first time in a half decade. Ross, expected to become a free agent in November, has been on the IL since he suffered a partial tear in his elbow in August. Needless to say, they and the Nationals have been waiting for this.