The numbness started in his right thumb, in early July just after the Nationals gathered in D.C. to begin an abbreviated summer training camp. As he continued to build himself up for the shortened 2020 regular season, the numbness began to spread to his hand.
When it came time to make his scheduled season debut July 25 against the Yankees, Stephen Strasburg realized he couldn’t effectively pitch like this. So the Nats medical staff tried to treat the injury with cortisone shots and anti-inflammatory medication.
By Aug. 9, he was able to make his first start of 2020 at last, at home against the Orioles. And though he felt fine, by the fifth inning Strasburg was getting roughed up by Baltimore’s lineup before it rained so hard and so suddenly that the grounds crew was unable to properly unfurl the tarp needed to cover the infield, forcing a suspension of the game.
Five nights later, this time up the road at Camden Yards, Strasburg tried to face the Orioles again. He lasted only three batters before the numbness became too restrictive. He walked off the mound, shoulders slumped, and would not return to pitch again the rest of the year.
“I don’t know if it was just, like, the intensity, ramping up really quick,” the right-hander said today in his first Zoom session with reporters since that initial Aug. 9 start. “Obviously, when you go out there and you kind of push your body to another level too quickly, it has a tendency to tell you to stop. Sometimes that’s not really beneficial for you in the long run.”
Doctors had a diagnosis for Strasburg, an unusual one for professional athletes: Carpal tunnel neuritis. The solution was fairly simple: A short, 15-minute surgery. But at that point, with only six weeks to go in the season, any chance of returning to pitch in 2020 was gone.
“We kept trying to do something easy or simpler to see if it works,” he said. “When it doesn’t work, you go do something that’s a little bit more intense. When that doesn’t work, it’s like: ‘OK, well the body’s just got to get fixed.’”
Some six months later, Strasburg’s body is completely fixed. He said the numbness disappeared almost immediately after the surgery. He was throwing again in November. And early in January, a few weeks earlier than normal, he climbed a bullpen mound for the first time to throw fastballs.
At this point, everything’s back to normal. Strasburg said he feels great. He hasn’t needed to change anything about the way he grips a ball or prepares in between throwing sessions.
“It’s a very simple procedure, and I’m lucky that I haven’t had any residual effects from it,” he said. “It’s pretty much been feeling great and coming out really well. I think, if anything, all the work I’ve done strengthening it has only improved the movement of my pitches.”
Nationals coaches see a healthy and invigorated Strasburg in camp and can’t help but be excited by what that means.
“He came into spring training with definitely a different attitude,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s smiling a lot more, laughing a lot more.”
So many things went wrong for the Nationals in 2020, but Strasburg’s injury (in the first year of a seven-year, $245 million contract extension, mind you) probably resides at the top of the list.
Without their co-ace taking the mound every fifth day, a franchise used to boasting an elite rotation was diminished. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin weren’t their usual selves, either. Aníbal Sánchez endured through significant regression following his critical performance during the second-half surge of 2019. And the other guys who had to fill in as No. 4 and No. 5 starters labored, often giving their team little chance of winning on a given night.
Who knows how much difference Strasburg alone would’ve made? But this much the Nationals do know: Without him, their chances for success considerably dropped.
“It was tough,” Martinez said. “Think about it: He was MVP of the World Series the year before. A big part of our success, not only in 2019 but every year. He’s one of our workhorses. And not to see him out there was tough.”
Strasburg insists he hasn’t spent much time wondering how he suffered this injury. Though it’s not uncommon for office workers who type on keyboards eight hours a day, it’s extremely rare for professional athletes.
The only other really notable case in baseball in recent memory was David Price, who dealt with carpal tunnel syndrome and other wrist ailments on and off in 2018-19. Price opted out of the 2020 season amid COVID-19 concerns and is now attempting to make a full return with the Dodgers.
“I don’t really try to look back too far to see why it happened,” Strasburg said. “But obviously I’ve been throwing a baseball for a long time, and it’s an injury that’s from repetitive use.”
So it was that the 2020 season became a wash for Strasburg. It was the sixth time in 11 big league seasons he’s been forced to spend more than a couple token weeks on the injured list. He’s pretty much always returned healthy and effective from any injury he’s suffered, major or minor.
Now the Nationals can only hope what happened last summer was an anomaly during a season in which almost nothing went right. And then hope their 32-year-old co-ace is due for a fully healthy season in which he helps lead the franchise back to the top.
“For me, if he was ever going to get hurt and ever fix an issue, last year would’ve been the time,” Martinez said. “I’m glad he got it fixed, and I’m glad he feels great.”