For all the positive things that happened Tuesday night during the Nationals’ 11-6 win in Atlanta, the departure of Stephen Strasburg in the bottom of the second with yet another physical ailment was by far the most significant development of the evening.
And it’s not simply because of what this means for Strasburg, who reported tightness in his right trapezius muscle and will undergo an MRI this morning, according to manager Davey Martinez. This also has a domino effect on several other members of the Nationals pitching staff, both in the short term and long term.
So let’s run through who is impacted by all this ...
Obviously, Strasburg is impacted more than anyone else, because he’s the one who now doesn’t know when he’s going to pitch again, or how he’ll feel when he does. Today’s MRI could provide some clarity, but let’s be real here. It may not matter what the MRI shows. The Nats may just need to shut him down regardless and not put him back on the mound until he’s legitimately right again.
This wasn’t an ailment that just popped up Tuesday night. It’s clearly been bothering him to some extent for a while. Remember that shot of Strasburg feeling around his shoulder and upper neck in the tunnel behind the dugout in St. Louis back in April, the shot that upset him so much because that area was supposed to be off-limits to TV cameras? Well, turns out there really was something going on with his shoulder and/or neck and/or upper back.
Strasburg may have returned from the injured list to pitch effectively against the Orioles and Reds, but it was clear he wasn’t 100 percent back in form. His fastball command was way off. His mechanics were causing him to fall toward the first base dugout on his follow-through. Tuesday night was merely the culmination of that.
Strasburg has had to deal with upper back/neck ailments multiple times during his career. At this point, he and his doctors just need to figure out the root of the problem and come up with a plan to treat it. If it means he has to miss considerable time again, so be it. Better to think long term here than try to force him back to the mound before he’s ready.
Before any of this happened, the Nationals already had announced plans to start Lester tonight on three days’ rest. Not because they want to do that with a 37-year-old left-hander, but because they had no other real choices beyond throwing a bullpen game or promoting a less-than-qualified candidate from their farm system.
Now, though, Lester’s start carries added weight. Because in the wake of Strasburg’s 30-pitch start and the need to use up six relieves to get through the rest of Tuesday’s game, the Nats cannot afford for tonight’s starter to get an early hook.
Austin Voth won’t be available for several days after throwing 50 pitches in emergency relief of Strasburg. Paolo Espino wound up pitching the eighth Tuesday and perhaps could be brought back tonight, but probably not for multiple innings.
The Nationals desperately need some length from Lester, even on short rest.
Just when you think the Nats are finally going to have to make a rotation decision and drop someone from the mix, something always comes up to push that decision further down the road. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened here.
With Strasburg unlikely to be able to take his next turn in the rotation Sunday at the Phillies, the Nationals will need to find a replacement. Fedde is the logical choice, but first the right-hander needs to build his arm up in a rehab start.
Martinez announced Tuesday afternoon that Fedde would start for Single-A Wilmington on Thursday, throwing five or six innings and perhaps 90 pitches. But that would prevent him from starting for the Nats in Strasburg’s place Sunday.
Asked about a potential change in plans for Fedde right after Tuesday night’s game, Martinez said he hadn’t had time to consider the options yet. But he continued to stress the need for Fedde to build up his arm so he’ll be ready to start when he comes back.
Which seems a pretty clear indication the Nationals never intended to move Fedde to the bullpen once he comes off the COVID-19 IL.