ATLANTA — Stephen Strasburg has started 12 games in the major leagues. For all but one of them, Ivan Rodriguez has been behind the plate, staring back out at the young ace and guiding him through each inning.
Seven hundred miles from where the Washington Nationals were taking the field in Atlanta on Thursday night, the batterymates were reunited in Harrisburg, Pa., for the first time since last August. Strasburg was making his sixth and final rehab start coming back from Tommy John surgery, Rodriguez making his third after an eight-week grind to nurse his right oblique back to health.
Both, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said, are expected to meet the major league team in Washington on Friday. For the first time in a long time - for either - they're not expected to depart. Strasburg will start Tuesday against Los Angeles, provided he comes through Thursday's outing well. Rodriguez could be activated during the Nationals' 10-game homestand as well.
That doesn't mean, however, that the trend will continue and Rodriguez will start Tuesday night because Strasburg will be pitching. When Strasburg made his major league debut last season, Rodriguez was (fortuitously) activated from the disabled list in time to catch him. Chances are that will not be the case this time.
"Probably not," Johnson said. "He's not in top playing condition. Pudge doesn't have to prove anything to me or anyone else in baseball. He's a quality player and even if he's only in 70 percent of his playing shape, he'd do a heck of a job back there - but that's something I wouldn't probably contemplate doing."
That doesn't mean Rodriguez won't lobby for the opportunity.
"He'll be all over me, I'm sure," Johnson said. "Even if he wasn't healthy."
That does mean, however, that for the first time in his major league career, Strasburg will be caught by someone other than Rodriguez or last year's backup, Wil Nieves. It shouldn't be an issue for the right-hander, who's gone through his rehab process with different catchers in the past month. He'll have to get acquainted with Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores at some point.
"There's plenty of time for that," Johnson said. "[Strasburg] is too young to have a personal catcher. I'm sure he's going to be comfortable enough just being up here."
There also are no guarantees on when Rodriguez will be activated. He's caught 12 innings without incident in two rehab starts, the first with Single-A Potomac and the second with Double-A Harrisburg. If he comes through the third fine and his oblique does not act up when he's batting, activation could be imminent.
That will not be determined until the Nationals return home, but it would be a helpful addition, allowing Johnson to use his catchers more freely as pinch hitters and knowing he wouldn't be without one.
"That's dependent on his condition, what the trainers think and we'll see if he's had any problem swinging," Johnson said. "He's had no problem catching. It would be nice to have him since I know he can catch. If he can't hit, I can still use my second catcher, which would be a luxury."
Notes: Left-handed specialist Doug Slaten was activated Thursday and was available for the rubber match at Atlanta. Slaten had been on the disabled list since June 4 with left elbow ulnar neuritis. He missed the past 77 games working his way back and made nine rehab starts. Slaten started four games, posted a 1.74 ERA with 11 strikeouts and no walks spread across the Gulf Coast League, Single-A Hagerstown, Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Sryacuse.
"My arm felt really good," he said. "It's been quite a while since I started pitching in games. I feel good now."
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