Not that they didn’t care about trying to beat the Padres as well, but that goal - if they were willing to be honest about it - was secondary to the more pressing matter at hand. This is what happens when you own a 14-game lead on Aug. 19, with a magic number already down to 28 despite six more weeks of regular season games left on the schedule.
So tonight’s 3-1 loss to San Diego, unpleasant as it might have been, mattered less than the fact Strasburg pitched well in his return from a four-week stint on the disabled list and emerged with no elbow issues.
“Well, yeah,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I mean, he threw the ball well. You wouldn’t even have known he had been out.”
Strasburg had last been seen pitching on a major league mound July 23 in Arizona, when he departed after two innings with what eventually was diagnosed as a nerve impingement in his elbow. At the time, the Nationals said they expected the right-hander to miss only one start. They ultimately decided to take a more cautious route and bring him along slowly, with several bullpen sessions, a simulated game at Nationals Park and a five-inning rehab start for Single-A Potomac before activating him off the DL.
The idea all along was to do whatever possible to put Strasburg in the best position to be healthy come October as opposed to August. It’ll be six more weeks before we know the definitive answer to that question, but the signs tonight were as positive as reasonably could have been expected.
Strasburg came out of the chute throwing hard, with a fastball that hit 98 mph several times in the first inning. His command was less polished, most notably on a 1-2 fastball to Yangervis Solarte that sat right at waist-level on the inner-third of the plate. Solarte mashed it to right field for a two-run homer, putting the Padres up early and perhaps raising some early questions about Strasburg.
“I think it was just getting the rust off a little bit,” the right-hander said. “And obviously with two strikes, I’ve got to put him away. I’ve got to make a better pitch than that.”
Strasburg, though, quickly found his groove and never lost it the rest of the way. He retired the next 10 batters he faced, five via strikeout. An infield single to open the fifth was followed by three more strikeouts in succession.
And after getting Solarte to tap a comebacker to the mound to end the sixth, Strasburg walked off the mound for the final time tonight having thrown 91 pitches but showing no signs of fatigue as his outing reached its conclusion.
“Yeah, I felt strong,” he said. “Velocity was still there. I’ll probably be back at 100 percent normal start next time.”
Straburg’s velocity was there throughout the game. He fired off several 98 mph fastballs in the first inning and didn’t see that drop off much along the way. His changeup, which topped out at 91 mph, was sharp from the get-go, responsible for five of his eight strikeouts.
Baker noted that Strasburg looked particularly fresh out there, no doubt benefitting from the late-summer break. That may, in the end, not be the worst thing for a guy who is trying to make sure he’s available to pitch in October for only the second time in his career.
“If he got time off like he did, that’s good for him,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “I don’t think he did it on purpose, but if you’ve got to take it, you take it. Hopefully we can have Stephen the way he was today, and he can keep having the good success that he’s been having this year.”
After his rehab start Monday, Strasburg suggested a hint of displeasure at the Nationals’ overly cautious handling of what he insisted all along was a minor elbow ailment. Then again, if tonight’s performance was an indication of things to come, and if all of this helps ensure he’s 100 percent when things really matter six weeks from now, there won’t be any complaints.
“If you ask anybody, you don’t really want to take any time off,” Strasburg said. “But sometimes you’ve just got to make a good decision and maybe take a step back to take two steps forward.”