Strasburg shows promise, fades late in return

MIAMI – This was never going to be Strasmas II, and anyone who went into tonight’s game believing it might hasn’t been paying close enough attention. He wasn’t going to strike out 14. He wasn’t going to approach anything close to triple digits on the radar gun. He wasn’t going to wow the baseball world with pitching dominance.

No, when Stephen Strasburg took the mound tonight for the 247th time in a career that began with such a flourish 12 years and 1 day earlier, there was only one goal in everyone’s mind: Come out of this one healthy.

In that regard, the initial read of the right-hander’s first start of 2022 was a positive one for the Nationals, even if the final outcome was a 7-4 loss to complete a three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins.

"It felt good, and I'm excited to learn from it and get back out there for my next one," he said, adding: "All in all, it's a place to start and try to build off it."

Sure, a better result would’ve been nice. Nobody wanted to see Strasburg give up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings or hand the ball over to Davey Martinez after serving up a towering homer instead of after recording a big out. But the 33-year-old’s final line in his long-awaited return from thoracic outlet surgery was never going to be the defining point of his start.

All that really matters is this: Strasburg threw 83 pitches in a major league game tonight and appeared to come out of it healthy. Given all he’s been through over the last two years, that was the only outcome club officials truly cared about.

"I'm going to be outcome-biased right now," Martinez said. "I thought he looked good. He talked after the game for a minute. He said he felt good. He missed some location with some pitches. But he felt good."

Which isn’t to say Strasburg’s pitching performance was all that bad, quite the contrary. He showed more than a fleeting glimpse of what he could still be, at one point retiring 10-of-12 batters faced, five via strikeout, and barely giving up any hard contact until his fifth and final inning of work.

Strasburg’s start really could be broken down into three parts: a weird first inning, then three impressive innings, then an ugly bottom of the fifth as he appeared to tire.

The weird first inning included three hits and a walk, though only one ball was hit hard: Garrett Cooper’s groundout to short. Jazz Chisholm Jr. beat out a bunt single on the very first pitch. Avisaíl García drove in a run with a ground ball that deflected off second baseman Ehire Adrianza’s glove and Jon Berti hit an 89.7 mph single up the middle to drive home two more runs. Strasburg threw only fastballs and curveballs in that first inning, his fastball registering 90-92 mph (a tick or two below what he reportedly threw during his three minor league rehab starts).

"He didn't throw 93-94, but his fastball had a little bit of oomph at the end of it," Martinez said. "Whether it cut, whether he was throwing two-seamers, it was late action. So that was good. ... I told him I think the velo will come as you go out there and keep progressing."

The next three innings offered plenty of reason for optimism. Strasburg struck out the side in the second, finally turning to his changeup to get two swings and misses. He struck out another batter in the third, this time on a curveball. Then he faced the minimum in the fourth, recording one more strikeout via changeup and inducing a double-play grounder.

"I thought the ball was coming out really well," said Riley Adams, a San Diego kid who grew up watching Strasburg and tonight caught him in a game for the first time. "I thought the stuff itself had really good action, really good movement."

The Nationals hoped Strasburg would finish strong, but it became apparent in the bottom of the fifth that wouldn’t happen. Four of the Marlins’ six batters who faced him that inning produced exit velocities of 96 mph or greater. Chisholm beat out another perfectly placed bunt to the third base side. Cooper and Jesús Aguilar delivered RBI hits. And then on his 83rd and final pitch, a 92 mph fastball to Jesús Sánchez, he served up a 417-foot homer to right, leaving his team in a 7-2 hole.

In hindsight, would Strasburg take back the pitch selection or the execution of the pitch he did throw to Sánchez?

"Probably a little bit of both," he said with a rare smile for a postgame interview. "I threw it right where I wasn't supposed to."

If there was a takeaway from this game, strictly pitching-based, it would be this: Strasburg is going to have to have pinpoint command of his now-low 90s fastball, then rely mostly on his still elite curveball and changeup to get outs. He didn’t have that tonight, but it seems foolish to draw a firm conclusion based on his first big league start in more than a year.

"We'll see how he feels tomorrow," Martinez said. "He'll go through his routine now, and we'll get him back out there in five days. But it's really good to have him back, it really is."

Strasburg’s season debut was the dominant storyline of this game, but it wasn’t the only one. The Nationals tried to give him some support but were shut out by Trevor Rogers for four innings before Juan Soto finally delivered a two-out two-run single to left in the fifth to briefly cut the deficit to 3-2.

They would add two more runs in the seventh on Lane Thomas’ double down the first base line, but by that point they trailed by a healthy margin, and a lineup missing Nelson Cruz (who was a late scratch with back tightness) needed much more to complete the rally and avoid the series sweep.

Thus did the Nats complete a long, arduous road trip. It began with a disheartening sweep in New York. It continued with three wins in four days in Cincinnati. And then it concluded with three straight losses in Miami.

It wasn’t the end result anyone wanted. But as was the case with tonight’s starting pitcher, end results feel less important than signs of progress right now.

"We've got to get some consistency, both out of starting pitchers and out of our lineup," Martinez said. "We see signs they're going to snap out of it. ... We're like one hit away. We're one ground ball off the glove away from getting out of a big inning. We've got to keep battling. No one's going to feel sorry for us."

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