Kyle McGowin, who was already in Atlanta as part of the club's traveling taxi squad, was recalled from Triple-A Rochester to take Strasburg's roster spot and provide another fresh arm for tonight's game against the Braves, in which Jon Lester will be starting on short rest the day after Strasburg's 1 1/3-inning start added more strain to the Nats bullpen.
It's the second time Strasburg has needed to go on the IL already this season, and there's no telling how long he'll remain out this time around as the Nationals try to figure out how to get their $275 million right-hander healthy and productive again.
The fact the club sent the 32-year-old to D.C. to be examined by team orthopedist Robin West was early evidence of concern this was no minor ailment he could attempt to pitch through. Manager Davey Martinez didn't have the results of Strasburg's MRI when he spoke to reporters on Zoom shortly before 5 p.m., and the announcement of Strasburg's placement on the IL about 30 minutes later did not specify if the MRI revealed a neck strain or something else.
After the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Braves, Martinez said the MRI ultimately showed nerve irritation in his neck. Strasburg, who dealt with a similar issue in 2018, will receive treatment and rest.
"He was a bit frustrated," Martinez said before the game. "He came back, he felt good and he had these issues with his neck going on yesterday. So he's a bit frustrated. I told him let's just get it checked out and see where it's at."
Strasburg never looked right from the get-go Tuesday night, throwing four straight balls to Ronald AcuÃ±a Jr. to begin his evening and earning a quick mound visit from Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard. The right-hander convinced the pair he was OK to remain in the game, but his diminished velocity (some fastballs registered only 88-89 mph) and poor mechanics (he consistently fell toward the first base dugout after releasing the ball) were further evidence something wasn't right.
Strasburg eventually was pulled two batters into the bottom of the second, his pitch count at 30. He admitted his trapezius muscle was tight, and the Nationals scheduled his MRI for this morning.
Truth be told, Strasburg has never really looked right in the last two seasons; he certainly hasn't looked like the pitcher who racked up a career-high 209 innings during the 2019 regular season and then added 36 1/3 more during a brilliant postseason run that earned him World Series MVP honors.
Since opting out of the final four years of his previous $175 million contract on the evening of the Nationals' championship parade and eventually signing a new seven-year, $245 million deal to remain in D.C. until he's 38, Strasburg has made only seven starts and totaled only 26 2/3 innings.
He dealt with numbness in his pitching hand last summer and wound up needing season-ending carpal tunnel surgery. He returned fresh this spring and believed he would be ready to resume his old workload, but his velocity and command were alarmingly off in his second start, and he was spotted by a camera behind the dugout in St. Louis working on his shoulder.
The Nationals placed Strasburg on the 10-day IL on April 18 with the generic ailment of "shoulder inflammation," then worked to get him back healthy and get his mechanics in order before activating him more than a month later. Though his pitching lines (three runs allowed in 10 1/3 innings) appeared positive in his first two starts back, his lack of fastball command and slightly diminished velocity again suggested he wasn't 100 percent right.
"I know it's frustrating, because he feels like he lets the team down, lets me down," Martinez said. "But that's something we don't even think about. I feel for Stephen. He missed all of last year. He felt great, wanted to come back and help us. And he's had a rough go so far. But we'll get him back. And once we get him back and he's healthy, he's going to help us win games."
Now the Nationals are left to proceed for the foreseeable future without one of their franchise pitchers yet again. Max Scherzer continues to lead the way as staff ace, but Patrick Corbin, Lester, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde have all produced mixed results so far this season.
Fedde figures to assume Strasburg's place in the rotation, but he probably won't be available to actually start in his place Sunday at the Phillies. The right-hander is still working his way back from the COVID-19 IL and remains scheduled to make a rehab start for Single-A Wilmington on Thursday. Martinez has said he doesn't want to activate Fedde until he shows he can reach at least the fifth inning and approach the 90-pitch mark in a competitive game.
Unless there's a rainout later this week in Atlanta or this weekend in Philadelphia - and the forecast for both cities is questionable - the Nationals will need to find someone else to start Sunday afternoon. They could either elect to use one of their starters-turned-relievers already on the big league roster (Austin Voth or Paolo Espino) or they could look to bring someone up from a farm system that is short on upper-level pitching prospects.
"We're banging our heads right now to try to figure something out for Sunday's start," Martinez said. "But I want to make sure Fedde's good and healthy and he's ready."