Strasburg throws simulated game, says rehab start is next

Stephen Strasburg took a key step in his return to the mound for the Nationals this afternoon by throwing a simulated game, the most significant test the right-hander has put his elbow through since going on the disabled list 2 1/2 weeks ago.

Strasburg said he threw 57 pitches over four simulated "innings," facing two batters (teammates Jayson Werth and Andrew Stevenson), and emerged with no concerns about the state of his elbow.

Strasburg-White-Mound-Maddux-Sidebar.jpg"It feels really good," he said. "I'm definitely happy with it. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing."

Out since July 24 with a nerve impingement in his elbow, Strasburg initially was due to miss only one turn in the Nationals rotation in what the club termed a precautionary move. But with the team holding a commanding lead in the National League East, the Nationals elected to bring their oft-injured right-hander along at a slower pace.

Strasburg played catch several times and threw at least two times off the bullpen mound over the last two weeks, but throughout the process manager Dusty Baker said the pitcher would need to face hitters in a simulated game before he could start seriously thinking about coming off the 10-day DL.

That key step finally happened today. With Werth and Stevenson taking turns in the batter's box, Strasburg threw about 14-to-15 pitches at a time, then returned to the dugout three times to simulate inning breaks. Among the group of onlookers on the field: general manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Mike Maddux.

"I wasn't really apprehensive about it," Strasburg said. "It's felt much better the last couple days. It felt good in the last bullpen. It's just getting better and better every day."

Werth, who is recovering from a fracture and bad bone bruise in his left foot, took plenty of hacks against Strasburg and walked away impressed with what he saw.

"I don't know what exactly we were dealing with, but he had command of all of his pitches," the veteran outfielder said. "He looked well-rested, actually. Had good life on his fastball. That was the first time I've faced him, so it was good to get a look like that. I think he's going to be fine."

This actually was the first time Werth could remember ever facing Strasburg. They had not paired up at any point during a spring training live batting practice session, and the one time they were on opposing teams in a major league game - Aug. 21, 2010 at Citizens Bank Park - Werth was not in the Phillies' lineup and only entered as a pinch-hitter after Strasburg had departed with what proved to be the torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

Strasburg said he expects now to make a rehab start for one of the Nationals' minor league affiliates. If he remains on a five-day schedule, he could possibly start for Single-A Potomac on Monday night in Woodbridge. If that rehab start goes well, he could be activated off the DL and return to the Nationals rotation five days later (when the club happens to be playing in San Diego, his hometown).

It remains to be seen whether that timetable for a return actually comes to fruition, but it roughly matches up with a timeframe Rizzo presented this morning when asked about Strasburg on his weekly show on 106.7 FM.

"He's going to progress to a simulated game soon," Rizzo told "The Sports Junkies." "And if it all goes well, he'll go on a rehab start. And if it all goes well, he'll be back in the rotation soon after that."

Rizzo also said the Nationals would have put Strasburg back on the mound sooner if the club was involved in a tighter pennant race, likening the cautious pace they've taken with him to the manner in which they held Max Scherzer back an extra day this week after he dealt with neck spasms.

"He's able to pitch in games," Rizzo said. "We're just being cautious with him. He's had the Tommy John, he's had an elbow scope in the past, so we're maintaining it. The same thing we did with Max ... we shut Max down after he walked off, and then we pushed him back. [He] missed a start, and he was chomping at the bit to start, but it was just prudent to give him a little time because we've earned the right to do that with the lead that we have."

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