Long before the gates opened at Nationals Park on Wednesday, a slender figure with a familiar face and red socks pulled to his knees stepped into the batting cage.
Then Stephen Strasburg rapped a half-dozen line drives into left field, like he’d been doing this all along.
The pitcher’s rehabilitation took another step after he convinced manager Davey Johnson to allow his first round of batting practice since Tommy John surgery.
“He’s on heavy restriction,” Johnson said, glancing toward the cage like a concerned father.
Strasburg’s comeback on the mound is proceeding, too. After striking out six batters over three innings with High-A Hagerstown on Monday, Strasburg threw an uneventful bullpen session at Nationals Park on Wednesday.
Though Strasburg’s velocity is back in the high 90s, the young ace sees plenty of space for improvement.
“He’s fine,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t real pleased with the way he threw.”
While Strasburg isn’t happy with his curveball — though he believes his fastball and changeup are better than before the injury - Johnson preached another message. Breaking pitches are usually the last thing to return for a pitcher coming back from this type of injury.
“I’m more concerned with building your foundation and arm strength on the fastball,” Johnson said. “The breaking ball is going to be there for him when his arm is in shape.”
That was true in Hagerstown, where Strasburg’s curveballs weren’t sharp in the first inning of the 60-pitch outing in front of general manager Mike Rizzo, vice president of player development Bob Boone and director of player development Doug Harris. The curveballs sharpened over the next two innings, in conjunction with Strasburg calming down from a first-inning adrenaline surge.
Strasburg’s next stop is Saturday in Triple-A Syracuse for his fifth rehabilitation start. Johnson expects Strasburg to throw 70 to 80 pitches, up from the 65 pitches he has been limited to in the past two minor league starts.
But there’s a bigger question: When will Strasburg return to Washington for more than a bullpen session and brief turn of batting practice?
Johnson doesn’t believe Strasburg, on a 30-day minor league rehabilitation assignment, will return before the assignment expires Sept. 6. Though nothing is set, that would allow Strasburg an additional upper-level minor league start. If he stayed on schedule, that would come Sept. 1, likely with Double-A Harrisburg since Syracuse is on the road.
If the Sept. 6 to return to Washington held up, Strasburg would be on schedule to make his first three starts at Nationals Park.
And rediscovering his batting stroke will prove handy then.
“I told him to take it easy and relax,” Johnson said. “Don’t try to mess with it. Have fun.”