Whatever concerns exist about the extent of Stephen Strasburg’s forearm trouble, whatever injury history one cites to support heightened alarm now and then, the Washington Nationals right-hander continues to progress as if the nerve impingement in his elbow is not a problem that will end his season.
Strasburg provided the latest evidence Monday night in Woodbridge, where he made his first minor league rehab appearance since landing on the disabled list last month. Scheduled for five innings of work or 75 pitches for the Class A Potomac Nationals, Strasburg provided the former on 66 pitches — 48 of which were strikes — then threw more in the bullpen afterward. He allowed three hits and a run, walked a batter and struck out five. He looked healthy and indicated he has felt that way for a while now.
“I felt like I was ready to come back before this,” Strasburg said. “But they wanted to be conservative, so hopefully this was enough.”
Strasburg threw his fastball at 95 to 96 mph, touching 97 now and then as he does when all is well. He threw his curveball at 81 mph and spotted it for strikes, catching two Salem Red Sox hitters frozen in their cleats when he threw it on two-strike counts — much like he does to big league hitters when all is well. His change-up sat in the high 80s and induced the usual weak contact. A few cutters ran wild and a few others landed where intended, sitting around 90 and 91 — just like they usually do.
“Felt good, no issues,” Strasburg said. “Felt strong throughout.”
Results hardly matter on a night like this, but the three hits Strasburg surrendered hardly signaled trouble. One came when Salem No. 3 hitter Conrad Gregor jumped on a first-pitch fastball and hit it to the wall. Another fell in to the outfield, a bloop at best, seemingly lost in the Pfitzner Stadium lights. They are not quite as bright as those on South Capitol Street.
While the bleachers were not full for Strasburg’s outing, they were more packed than usual, filled with fans who provided all the standard fanfare. They shot selfies as he warmed up. One young fan, far closer to the all-star here than he would get at Nationals Park, said, “Sup, Stephen?” as the 29-year-old walked by. Strasburg didn’t appear to hear him and seemed unfazed by the attention of those who clamored to see him, their attention free to wander 45 minutes south of Nationals Park because his Nationals teammates had the day off.
A representative of Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, and Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba sat behind home plate to get a closer look, checking on Strasburg’s pitch count and otherwise supervising. But no horde of executives rode south to be sure, and no one seemed too worried. As one scout in attendance put it, “Yeah, he’s fine.”
If that is true, and if Strasburg is as healthy as he looked in those five pleasantly uneventful innings Monday, he could make his next start with the major league Nationals. He would be on full rest Saturday in San Diego, which would be the next time the Nationals do not have a starter on regular rest. Strasburg, a San Diego native, might therefore be lined up to return to the rotation in front of his hometown crowd. Right-hander A.J. Cole has been pitching in Strasburg’s place, and he would have an extra day of rest for Saturday.
Whatever the next step, Strasburg took a big and reassuring one Monday. When he landed on the disabled list, speculation swirled. After his 2016 season ended early because of a torn pronator tendon in his right arm, another bout of elbow-area trouble felt sinister. Both he and the Nationals insisted it was not, that the disabled list stint was entirely precautionary. He never stopped throwing, which he would have had the trouble been severe. He threw a simulated game last week, and that went well, too. After five more strong innings Monday, Strasburg was terse, as if agitated to get back to Washington and to the majors. Physically, he looked ready to do just that. Mentally, he seems to think he has been ready for quite some time.