HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Stephen Strasburg’s first pitch Wednesday night was a 97-mph fastball that popped into his catcher’s glove for strike one, and his final pitch was a wicked, 84-mph curveball that hit the poor batter on the top of his back foot, even as he was twisting himself into a pretzel in flailing away at it.
But in between, Strasburg made about as big a mess of his start — the third of his minor league rehabilitation assignment — as he ever has as a professional, which is certain to lead to questions about the 23-year-old right-hander’s health and readiness, as he nears both the one-year anniversary of his elbow injury and the target date for his return to the majors.
Pitching for the Hagerstown Suns of the Class A South Atlantic League, Strasburg was rocked for four hits — three of them doubles to the wall — and five earned runs by the visiting Lexington Legends while recording just five outs, three of them by strikeout. Three runs had already scored and 25 pitches had left Strasburg’s hand before he recorded his first out of the game.
But Strasburg’s struggles Wednesday night — which came on the heels of two solid outings to launch his comeback — may have been less about his elbow than about the rust that remains on his arm after a year away from competition. Or it could have been just one of those nights.
“Sometimes it’s good to have games like this, because you need to get knocked around a little bit to see what you’re doing wrong,” Strasburg said. “I know what I need to fix.”
Strasburg’s velocity was fine, as his fastball sat at 96 to 98 mph and touched 99 mph at least once on the radar guns of scouts behind home plate. He also broke off a handful of excellent curveballs, some of which were virtually untouchable. What was missing was the command Strasburg displayed in breezing through three dominating innings for the high-Class A Potomac Nationals five days earlier.
“The bottom line is, if I throw fastballs that are just a hair up like they were today,” he said, “they’re going to get hit a country mile, anywhere.”
Strasburg also seemed out of sorts from the start, shaking his head in disgust after throwing warmup pitches before both innings, chafing at the strike zone of home plate umpire Mike Cascioppo and neglecting defensive duties such as backing up the plate on a throw home and covering first on a grounder to the first baseman.
The first batter of the game, Lexington second baseman Delino DeShields Jr., walked on six pitches. The next batter, Tyler Burnett, smashed a first-pitch fastball into the gap in right-center. The third batter, Domingo Santana, hit a broken-bat flare into right field for an RBI single. The fourth, first baseman Telvin Nash, lined another double to right-center.
“They almost had a hyper approach to what [opposing hitters] do off me,” Strasburg said of the Lexington batters. “They try to cheat to the fastball early in the count, because they don’t want to get to two strikes.”
A Class A lineup that had scored a total of eight runs in its previous six games, all of them losses, was having its way with the most talented young pitcher on the planet. Suns catcher David Freitas and pitching coach Chris Michalak both made trips to the mound to try to calm Strasburg.
“I just told him, at this level there are a lot of free swingers,” Michalak said. “And when you’re a strike-thrower like he is, guys are going to be even more aggressive.”
After coming out of the game, Strasburg had a long talk with Michalak in the Suns’ dugout, cheering on the Suns as they came back to notch a 9-6 win — taking Strasburg off the hook for a loss. The important things for Strasburg were that his arm feels good, he has another start in five days, and a return to the big leagues looms in a matter of weeks.
“Here it is, I’m not even a year out, and my velocity is pretty much back to where it was,” Strasburg said. “They told me the whole time, ‘You’re probably not going to see the kind of velocity you had until 18 months [after surgery].’ And I think [the reason it is back is] because I worked my butt off this whole time.”