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Stephen Strasburg will return to the injured list after just one start

Stephen Strasburg made his season debut Thursday at Miami. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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About 27 hours before Stephen Strasburg was set to take the Nationals Park mound again, Dave Martinez announced Monday afternoon that the right-hander soon will go back on the injured list. As the manager addressed reporters before a series opener with the Atlanta Braves, Strasburg was undergoing an MRI exam, the results of which will determine just how significant his latest setback is.

Needless to say, this was the opposite of how the Washington Nationals wanted to start a tough week against divisional opponents.

“We’ll know more about the injury and all that stuff after the game,” Martinez said of Strasburg, who returned to start Thursday at the Miami Marlins after a long recovery following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. But after the game, a 9-5 loss, Martinez declined to discuss Strasburg’s situation further. He promised he would know “a lot more” Tuesday, suggesting he would share additional details then.

“This surgery, this thoracic outlet thing, you just don’t know,” he continued Monday afternoon. “We don’t know if this is the same issue or not yet, but we’ll know more as … soon as we get the MRI and the doctors read the image. But it stinks because he was all excited to be back.”

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In that Marlins start, Strasburg yielded seven runs on eight hits in 4⅔ innings. What mattered more, though, was that he threw 83 pitches and felt nothing more than general fatigue. That changed following his between-starts bullpen session Saturday. Strasburg “didn’t feel right, some discomfort,” Martinez told reporters, but he didn’t specify an area of Strasburg’s body that was bothering him.

After back-to-back season-ending surgeries, the 33-year-old has missed most of the past three years. Yet he’s not even halfway through a seven-year, $245 million contract he signed after he was named World Series MVP in 2019. The deal so far has included 31⅓ innings, a number likely to freeze for the foreseeable future. Before pitching Thursday, Strasburg made three minor league rehab appearances. His previous start in the majors was June 1, 2021.

“We’re going to be as careful as possible with him and try to do everything right for Stephen and for this organization moving forward,” Martinez said. “Right now, we’re at those bumpy roads, and we’ll see what happens.”

Jackson Tetreault will make his major league debut against the Braves on Tuesday, taking Strasburg’s active roster spot. The Nationals will have to make room on the 40-man, too, though Martinez did not announce that move Monday night. Tetreault, a 26-year-old righty, had a strong May for Class AAA Rochester and has a 4.19 ERA in 12 starts. After Monday, with Josiah Gray getting bumped by a 93-minute rain delay, then Erasmo Ramírez, Steve Cishek and Jordan Weems each pitching multiple innings, Washington’s staff is taxed.

Martinez told reporters he would take an hour postgame, if not more, to see if the club needs more than one fresh arm ahead of Tuesday’s game. But while the pitching plans matter — the Nationals also have to cover a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday — Strasburg’s career outlook is a far bigger concern.

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In August 2020, it was surgery for carpal tunnel in his right hand. In July 2021, it was surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a major procedure that has kept some pitchers from being the same. But at this point, Strasburg can’t stay healthy enough for the Nationals to see what’s left. He has missed the prime years of his megadeal. Soon the question of what’s next will be reframed, if it hasn’t been already, to whether Strasburg can ever be a constant of any kind in Washington’s rotation.

On one hand, he still has a while to get there, especially because the Nationals are rebuilding and not making any sort of push this year. But on the other, each of Strasburg’s steps seems to go in the wrong direction.

“Stephen is here — he’s going to be here,” Martinez said. “So we want to make sure we take care of him now. Hopefully we get him back and when we do this will pass.”