Strasburg moves step closer after dominant rehab start

Stephen Strasburg was already in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park by the time Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Rockies was completed, the traffic on northbound Interstate-95 apparently not nearly as awful as you’d typically expect it to be on a holiday weekend.

While the Nats were hanging on to beat Colorado and earn their first home series win of the season, Strasburg was making his second rehab start for Single-A Fredericksburg. And unlike his uneven first outing Tuesday night, this time he dominated his far-less-experienced opponents.

Strasburg tossed five no-hit innings. He retired the first 14 batters before finally surrendering a walk with two outs in the fifth. He struck out six. He did all this in only 58 pitches (38 strikes). Suffice it to say, it was about as best-case scenario as you could draw up under the circumstances.

And most importantly, it moves the 33-year-old one step closer to rejoining the Nationals and finally making his 2022 debut.

Manager Davey Martinez has said he’d like Strasburg to be able to complete six innings and/or throw 90 pitches before coming off the injured list. After going five innings Sunday, he should be cleared to go six in his next outing. The pitch count progression might lag a bit behind; it’s tough to imagine the organization would let him throw more than 75 or so pitches next time out. But as efficient as he was in this one, it’s entirely possible he could complete six frames around that total.

Strasburg was back at Nationals Park right after making his start because he was traveling with the team to New York for the first leg of their three-city trip. He’ll continue to go through his typical between-starts routine through the next few days, throwing off the bullpen mound at Citi Field, and then prepare for his third rehab start.

That next start, Martinez said, will be at the end of the week for Triple-A Rochester, barring any setbacks between now and then. It will provide another step up in Strasburg’s progression, most notably an opportunity to face some more advanced hitters and gauge how his stuff is playing right now.

Strasburg’s fastball reportedly was in the low 90s on Sunday, which isn’t unusual for him at this stage of his career. His best pitches were and will continue to be his curveball and changeup, which he has come to understand are the keys to his possible success coming back from thoracic outlet surgery and two years of hardly any big league mound time.

Clearly, the low Single-A hitters he faced Sunday were overmatched by Strasburg’s repertoire. Now we’ll see how Triple-A hitters (many of them with at least some major league experience) handle it, which should give the Nationals a clearer idea of a timetable for his return.

If Strasburg can get to six innings in this next start, would the organization decide he’s ready to return? It’s possible, and that debut would come June 8 (when the Nats are in Miami) at the earliest. If it’s decided he needs another rehab start to further build up his arm, his debut would likely come sometime during the June 13-15 home series against the Braves.

There’s still always the possibility of a setback, of course. And given Strasburg’s history, it’s never safe to assume anything health-wise.

But for now, the signs all remain positive. And for the first time in a long time, it’s OK to conjure up images of the 2019 World Series MVP pitching for the Nationals in 2022 and perhaps providing a much-needed shot in the arm for a struggling rotation.

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