After tumultuous year, Strasburg returns to Nats tonight

MIAMI – Of all the factors that contributed to last summer’s trade deadline sell-off by the Nationals and initiation of an organizational rebuild, it’s not unfair to suggest that Stephen Strasburg’s latest injury ranked at the top of the list.

By the time the final week of July came around, the Nats knew they weren’t going to win anything in 2021. Once they learned Strasburg needed thoracic outlet surgery, they knew they probably weren’t going to win anything in 2022, either.

So when Strasburg makes his return to the mound tonight here in Miami, he’ll return to a situation that bears almost no resemblance to the one he found himself in the last time he pitched in a major league game.

The Nationals lineup June 1, 2021 in Atlanta included Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison and Starlin Castro. Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand pitched in relief. None will be here tonight when Strasburg faces the Marlins.

Nobody arguably has had more direct impact on the Nats’ fortunes over the last dozen years than Strasburg, whose availability to pitch has almost always been the difference between winning and losing. In five of the six seasons he made 24 or more starts, the team reached the postseason (all but 2013). In each of the six seasons he made fewer than 24 starts, the team failed to make it to October. And that number will grow to seven this year.

So Strasburg’s return isn’t so much about making a dramatic difference on the Nationals’ fortunes in 2022 as it is creating the possibility it could make a real difference in 2023 and beyond. If the right-hander is able to stay healthy and pitch effectively for 20 or so starts the rest of the way, the organization can begin to think about prioritizing wins again next year. If he can’t, club officials have to be prepared to focus their attention elsewhere in search of quality starting pitching.

That may be the big picture backdrop tonight, but all anyone in attendance is going to be focused on is Strasburg’s singular health and performance in this game. It’s foolish to think much beyond that yet.

“For him, I’m going to take it one pitch at a time and see where he’s at,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It might be a different discussion in a month, who knows. But the good thing is, he feels good. He feels like he’s in a good place. For now, Thursday’s his day and we’re going to go with it. I’m expecting him to go out there and compete.”

Let’s take a moment here to appreciate the mere fact Strasburg is starting tonight at all. Go back to July 27, 2021, and consider the sense of dread coming from every corner as the news of the right-hander’s pending thoracic outlet surgery circulated. The track record for returning from such a significant procedure – if we can even call it a track record, given the low number of previous cases – isn’t good. Most do return to pitch in the majors again. Few return to pitch as effectively as they did pre-surgery.

“Really, you don’t hear about it too much,” Strasburg said late last month following his first rehab start for Single-A Fredericksburg. “You see some guys say they’ve had it. But unlike Tommy John (surgery), it’s not like I can ask a bunch of other guys for their opinion. I’m going off how I feel, and it’s more about putting in the work, and trusting yourself and knowing at some point it’s going to click.”

We don’t know yet if it will ever fully click for Strasburg, but the signs to date have been awfully encouraging. His fastball averaged 92-94 mph during his three minor league rehab starts (which, for those who might be concerned to see those numbers, actually is right in line with his average velocity in 2019). Perhaps as important, his curveball and changeup looked as sharp as ever, helping contribute to the 11 combined scoreless innings he tossed in his final two outings.

That all occurred in three minor league games, of course. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the same will occur in big league games. The hitters are more talented. The stakes are much higher. The physical and mental demands are much greater.

We’ll get our first glimpse of it all this evening. Whether he tosses six scoreless innings or gets roughed up for six runs in 2 2/3 frames, all anyone in the organization cares about is that he emerges healthy. Then that he takes the ball again in five days, hopefully enjoys some success, and again emerges healthy.

They’ll hope he keeps repeating that process about 20 times through the first week of October, setting himself up for a full season of work in 2023.

But first things first. Stephen Strasburg is pitching for the Nationals tonight. And that may be the most encouraging thought anyone has had about this team so far this year.

“It’s exciting, and it’s a good thing for the organization,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “When he’s pitching, he’s as good as anybody in baseball. So when we get him healthy and we get him back on the mound, he’ll improve the team and he’ll make us better.”f

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