Right-hander Stephen Strasburg didn’t pitch as well as wanted in his return to the mound Wednesday night.
Strasburg struck out the first two batters he faced on called third strikes. But then he gave up back-to-back doubles, a homer and a single. Suddenly, the Phillies led 3-0 in the first inning.
Maikel Franco’s two-run homer was the big hit in the first. Then in the third, Justin Bour smacked a solo shot off of Strasburg and the Phillies led 4-1.
Strasburg had to battle to get through four innings, laboring for 84 pitches with 51 strikes. He allowed five runs on seven hits with one walk and five strikeouts. It was his first start since July 20 against the Braves.
“Yeah, I mean, it was a work in progress,” Strasburg said. “It’s obviously been a while, so I learned some things from it and take it into the next one, but what a finish. That was awesome to watch.”
One concern was Strasburg’s decreasing velocity as his innings and pitch count went up. In the first inning, he was hitting 95-96 mph. In the second and third frames, it dipped to 92-93 mph. In the fourth inning, Strasburg’s fastball velocity hovered around 91-92 mph.
Manager Davey Martinez said Strasburg said he was OK, but the skipper felt the right-hander was getting tired as the start progressed.
“He said he felt fine and I think he did get a little gassed,” Martinez said. “I thought that’s good enough for me and he competed. And I’m proud of him. He went out here when we needed him and he competed. We just said, ‘You’re done. You’re gassed.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Oh, perfect. Nice job.’ “
Strasburg admitted that he didn’t feel as strong as he usually does after watching his pitch count build with each inning. He did see his fastball velocity decrease after the first inning.
“I don’t really know. I saw it too, so ...” Strasburg said. “I’d like to think that it’s ... I don’t know if it’s rust, I think it’s just endurance. Hopefully, that’s what it is.”
If it wasn’t Aug. 22 and his club wasn’t 7 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East, Strasburg said he would have gone on a rehab assignment and made one or two starts.
“I said, ‘We’re kind of at the point of no return,’ ” Strasburg said when he decided to skip a minor league rehab start. “So just got to go out there when you feel good enough to go. You go and you give everything you have. Luckily, we pulled it out tonight, so we’ll get them tomorrow.”
Martinez didn’t think Strasburg needed a rehab start and felt that the bullpen and simulated game was good enough to get him ready to pitch. The skipper noticed Strasburg was getting tired.
“Yeah, but he threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “That’s his first game back. He pitched a sim game, but that’s his first real game. He didn’t go down and pitch in any games, so I thought he looked real good.
“I mean, he was good to go. He threw a lot of bullpens. We got him up to 75-80 pitches and he felt good.”
But Strasburg knows how he feels and he also knows what it’s like to attempt to battle through several different injuries in his career. He said this shoulder issue was a unique challenge to rehab.
“It’s the first time I’ve really dealt with the shoulder injury, so I think that’s something new,” Strasburg acknowledged. “The more I talk to it, it’s just going to take some time. Even the doctors said this nerve issue is not going to just fix itself overnight. It takes a few months, but at least I’m not getting the symptoms anymore.”
With all of these injuries - and even the famous shutdown right before the 2012 postseason - Strasburg has been down this road to recovery before. Last season, he returned and was utterly dominant down the stretch, culminating in a lethal Game 4 of the National league Divisional Series against the Cubs in a game his team had to win - and did.
So did this time away from his team hurt even more while he watched the Nats’ opportunity to climb back into the division race diminish with every loss and was unable to contribute to stopping the slide?
“I don’t really want to get into that anymore,” Strasburg said. “Spent the last two months just fuming over it, so I was happy to be back out there tonight and great win for us and I’m excited for Zim.”