PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg never walks off the mound with anything resembling pep, but his slow trudge after the second inning of Sunday's 6-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks nevertheless felt ominous.
“It’s more like forearm a little bit, but it’s kind of difficult to really pinpoint. It’s not like really intense pain in a specific area,” Strasburg said. “. . . I think my arm is just kind of taking a little while to get back in the swing of things.”
For the second straight start, Strasburg had trouble loosening up his forearm, something he attributed to the change of routine forced by the all-star break — something he didn’t seem to think will grow into a bigger problem if he takes care of it now. Unfortunately, his history lends little credibility to that notion.
Though it came with no immediate prognosis, for better or worse, Strasburg's departure hovered over all that followed like Phoenix's stifling heat, not permitting anyone in the Washington Nationals' dugout to breathe comfortably.
When Enny Romero left the game with a back spasm a few innings later and Jose Lobaton had a similar scare with a brief cramp, the whole thing had devolved into nearly unbelievable injury chaos — forcing Manager Dusty Baker to nearly empty his bullpen, to push relievers to their limits and reach to the furthest depths of his roster.
“You try not to think negative about anything,” Baker said. “It’s like: ‘Okay, boys, we know we’ve got a problem. So the next thing is, we’ve got to try to figure out how to get out of the problem.’ You know you’ve got a problem, but you’ve got to figure out how to get out of it.”
They figured it out and then some. During the whole, strange, nearly four-hour affair, they never led by fewer than three. The Nationals finished their road trip 7-2, a fitting summation of a season that has included plenty of winning overshadowed by concern.
But whatever their record says, this road trip took its toll on the Nationals, the full extent of which will not be clear until Strasburg’s forearm either improves or doesn’t, until Romero’s back — which he does not expect to require a stint on the disabled list but has in the past — either loosens up or doesn’t.
Already banged up entering Sunday, the Nationals were so desperate for outfield help with Ryan Raburn gone to bereavement leave and Chris Heisey hurt that Wilmer Difo was their best option to start in left field against all-star left-hander Robbie Ray in the series finale.
Once a trove of organizational depth, the Nationals’ outfield has been decimated by injuries, a fact that has led their lineup to look more porous than usual as they await the returns of Jayson Werth and Michael A. Taylor.
In addition to starting Difo, a career infielder, in the outfield, the Nationals called up Andrew Stevenson, who began this year in Class AA, to replace Heisey on the roster. Stevenson was a long-shot September call-up when he was invited to his first big league camp this spring. He made his major league debut in the game.
General Manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday he thinks the Nationals have enough depth remaining there that they should not need to trade for anyone in the meantime. As if to prove the point, Brian Goodwin — a left-handed hitter — led off the game against Ray by hitting a home run to dead center field. Difo followed with a single, a sequence that sparked a four-run, five-hit outburst that drove Ray's pitch count to 39.
Strasburg experienced no such trouble, but even without the benefit of hindsight, something didn’t look right. His stuff was fine, his velocity normal. But he was missing; he walked the eighth and ninth hitters in succession in the second and three overall in two scoreless but grueling innings.
He will be evaluated by doctors but does not think he requires an MRI exam at the moment. A similarly positive prognosis to elbow soreness last year led him to miss the last month and a half of the season — something he says he has learned from.
“I just want to be there at the end. That’s like the ultimate goal this year,” Strasburg said. “And if getting pulled after a couple innings today, if that’s going to put me in a better position to be there, I’ll take it.”
While the Nationals probably would have preferred not to audition quite as many of their minor leaguers as they have this season, injuries have given them that chance. Matt Grace is among those who have earned repeated callbacks, and after throwing 31 pitches in 1⅔ scoreless innings of relief Friday, he was called on for 2⅓ innings — and 42 more pitches — Sunday.
Romero also pushed past his usual pitch count limit with 29 and left with that back spasm after 1⅔ innings.
Even those who stayed healthy, such as Grace or Matt Albers — who also threw 29 pitches Sunday — were pushed to their limit by the unsavory circumstances. Injuries do not only hurt the injured. But despite it all, the Nationals won — won easily. Exactly how much they paid for that victory remains to be seen.