Johnson and McCatty: No concern for Strasburg’s breaking ball command

Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg will take it up a notch Saturday night as he embarks on his fifth rehab start in recovery from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg will pitch five innings and/or a maximum of 80 pitches for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs against the Rochester Red Wings at Alliance Bank Stadium.

Strasburg, who went through a side session Wednesday at Nationals Park, will look to continue to build on his last two outings where his fastball has had great velocity and his changeup has baffled hitters. But Strasburg said he has wanted to work on command of his breaking stuff and felt he made incremental progress Monday night.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he is less concerned with Strasburg’s breaking ball as he is with getting his arm back to where it was prior to ligament replacement surgery.

“My message to him is forget about the breaking ball,” Johnson said. “I am more concerned in building a good foundation and arm strength on the fastball, where you feel real comfortable to add and subtract with it and hit your spots. Curveball is going to be there if his arm is in shape.”

Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said it is common for a pitcher coming off major procedure to have the command of his touch pitches come back a little slower than his fastball or changeup.

“For a lot of guys, yes, it is (last thing to return),” McCatty said. “All we want is for him to work on it. It will fluctuate, just kind of like everybody else with their pitches (during rehab starts). (We will see) how the breaking stuff goes in this outing, along with his fastball.

“We know he is healthy. The velocity has been good. All we want to do is to see him deliver the ball nice, free and easy, and work on his fastball command. If he wants to mix in a couple of breaking balls, get comfortable and trust it, that is fine. But we just want him to get through the innings healthy, that is the main thing. I am sure that is going to happen.”

Nationals right-handed reliever Ryan Mattheus recovered successfully from Tommy John surgery in July 2009. Although Mattheus said he throws a little bit differently than Strasburg, he said Strasburg just needs the reps to get the breaking ball command to return, and there is no rush.

“If I had to tell him one thing I would tell him the arm strength is there, so you know the breaking ball is not far behind,” Mattheus said. “You just got to trust it. He has been spent a lot of time off the mound. That is the last thing that will come back is being able to spin the breaking ball consistently.

“He just needs to set his grip and throw the thing and just let the repetition take over. It is going to be different than his side sessions once he gets into the intensity of a baseball game. It is going to be inconsistent, but I think over time it will be fine, since the arm strength is there.”

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