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Stephen Strasburg is back on the bump, and that’s a start for the Nats

Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch during a rehab start with the Fredericksburg Nationals on Tuesday night. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In so many ways, what happened Tuesday night here in Fredericksburg — at Virginia Credit Union Stadium rather than Nationals Park, in a low Class A Carolina League game that centers on development rather than a National League matchup that affects the pennant race — was so much more important to the future of the Washington Nationals than anything that transpired 55 miles north. There, the flailing big league club was overmatched by the Los Angeles Dodgers again. Here, Stephen Strasburg took to the mound in a competitive game for the first time in 51 weeks.

“Baby steps,” Strasburg said. He has to think that way, because there’s no point in worrying about what’s past and what awaits for the rest of the season when the goal is simply to take to another mound in another game in five days.

The results of Strasburg’s first rehab start in what has been a frustrating, twisting road back from surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome — 2⅔ innings and 61 pitches in which he struggled with his command and dealt with the expected rust a year on the shelf would cause — have no bearing on and give zero indication as to what might happen next. But there is no “next” without what happened Tuesday for the Fredericksburg Nationals against the Salem Red Sox. Baby steps.

“It was good to just be out there in a competitive situation,” the 33-year-old said. “Now I have someplace to start from and someplace to build from.”

The numbers are unimpressive — four walks, three hits, three strikeouts, three earned runs and just 31 of those 61 pitches for strikes. Strasburg’s message: Dismiss the results. His fastball was all over the place. He spiked breaking balls in front of the plate. Fine. It’s a minor league game that’s a platform to work his way back. He threw all of his pitches. His shoulder wasn’t fatigued afterward. Now, he can see a path.

“Command wasn’t good, but the stuff was breaking like I haven’t seen it in a long time,” Strasburg said. “So I’m like: ‘Okay, the stuff’s there. Now I just need to kind of hone it in a little bit more.’ So that’s kind of the big positive that I saw, and that’s the thing where when you’re down in Florida just throwing on a back field, you’re not going to get that kind of adrenaline flowing.”

The Nationals’ downfall since their 2019 World Series championship is in so many ways embodied by Strasburg. Then, he was an October monster, the World Series MVP who shouldered 36⅓ postseason innings, posting a 1.98 ERA with 47 strikeouts and just four walks. Since, he has signed a seven-year, $245 million deal that has essentially hamstrung the franchise. Over three seasons, he has pitched just 26⅔ big league innings.

It’s crippling. Strasburg’s previous appearance in a game in which the results mattered for someone’s record in some league’s standings, regardless of the level, was June 1, 2021, when he faced the Braves in Atlanta and lasted two batters into the second inning. Thoracic outlet syndrome — which he has investigated and chased and battled and is now starting to believe he can overcome — is different than the Tommy John surgery he overcame more than a decade ago. There is just no straight line back, and for so long there was no way to know what would come tomorrow.

“I think that the biggest thing is that it’s feeling good,” Strasburg said after he worked out in what became a 6-1 Fredericksburg loss. “It’s about just getting reps in and just getting the consistency back. You can only simulate that so much in the bullpen. Threw a lot of pitches. Arm felt good coming out of it, and I think that’s been like the big thing, building up the stamina and stuff.”

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That wasn’t clear during a spring training that started late because of the owners’ lockout and in which Strasburg never appeared in a major league game. That wasn’t true at the end of the spring, when he ended up in MLB’s coronavirus protocols and had to quarantine for 10 days. “Frustrating,” he called that development. Add it to the pile of developments he could characterize exactly that way.

“That was kind of what I was feeling in spring training, [when] I went out there for the first live [batting practice session],” he said. “And it was good the first one, but then when I sit down, that’s when it’s like: ‘Oh, crap. Like, where’s my arm?’ That was when we got to the point where it’s like we need to get stronger. We need to try and work on some stability.”

So, then, baby steps. It matters not just to Strasburg as a person and a competitor but to the Nationals as a franchise what this start leads to. Imagine if what emerges from this process is a pitcher who somewhat resembles the Stephen Strasburg of 2019. That would give the Nationals an ace this summer and an ace in future years, when they might contend for a division title again. And if he can’t become that? Well, then, shudder and pull the covers over your eyes, because $35 million would be tied up annually in a pitcher who can’t pitch.

The Nationals’ record since that World Series is 105-161 — a pace to lose 98 games per season. They tied for last in the NL East in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. They finished last over 162 games last year. They look like a last-place team this year. It’s not a stretch to think if Strasburg had been healthy that the club’s record would have been good enough last summer that the Nationals wouldn’t have undergone a massive sell-off — Max Scherzer and Trea Turner and Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes and more — at the trade deadline.

Yet they did. That’s a lot to bear.

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“I think it’s easy for me to kind of put that all on myself, thinking that, ‘Okay, we’re not playing well because I’m not healthy,’ ” he said. “I’ve had too many sleepless nights thinking that. So finally come to grips that it is what it is and all I can do is just continue to grind and continue to give it everything I have.”

Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg put behind an ugly line and stuffed the positives in his Nationals equipment bag for the drive back up I-95. He will sleep in his own bed. He will show up at Nationals Park on Wednesday for work. In coming days, he will throw a bullpen session. And five days later, he’ll take to another minor league mound. They’re baby steps, but if the 2019 World Series MVP is going to rediscover anything that resembles his former self — and hasten his franchise’s rebuild — every single one of them is necessary.