HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Stephen Strasburg arrived at Municipal Stadium on Wednesday afternoon in a white Chevy sedan. He drove himself, and breezed through the handful of spectators already awaiting his arrival 2½ hours before gametime.
Everything went according to plan, just as it had in his previous two rehab starts, just as it did during his 11-month rehabilitation process from Tommy John surgery. He threw his first pitch of the night at 7:04 p.m.
That’s where the similarities ended.
Strasburg experienced his first bump in the seemingly freshly paved road back to the major leagues when he needed 25 pitches to get his first out. It took him 33 pitches to get through the first inning and with his final 16 he got two outs in the second inning.
In between, he gave up three doubles and a single, walked two batters and allowed three earned runs. As soon as he tossed his 49th pitch, a curveball at the feet of Lexington Legends left fielder Tyler Burnett that was flailed at for Strasburg’s third strikeout, Suns manager Brian Daubach was out to retrieve him — much to the chagrin of the Nationals’ ace.
“Sometimes it’s good to have games like this,” Strasburg said roughly two hours after his final pitch had been thrown. “You need to kind of get knocked around a little bit to things to work on. It’s just another step in the road. It can only get better from here.”
While Strasburg talked with Single-A Hagerstown pitching coach Chris Michalak in the dugout, Sam Brown inherited two runners from a double and a walk and promptly gave up a two-run single to the first batter he faced, Domingo Santana. That closed the book on Strasburg’s night. The line was the worst one Strasburg had had since he became a major leaguer: 1⅔ innings, five earned runs off four hits and two walks.
He threw 49 pitches, 29 strikes, and threw first-pitch strikes to seven of the 11 batters. It was the most earned runs he’d allowed since an Aug. 10, 2010 start against the Florida Marlins where he lasted just 4⅓ innings and allowed six earned runs off six hits (five doubles and a homer), and two walks.
“I felt like I was throwing strikes, but when you’ve got guys out there that you know are going to be ambushing you from first-pitch on [it’s tough],” he said. “I just need to throw the ball down a bit more. A lot of that has to do with just not being out there and really being in mid-season form.”
“It’s just knowing how I need to pitch up in the big leagues and staying with that,” he added.
“Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily going to work at this level.… The bottom line is that if I throw fastballs that are just a hair up like I did today, they’re going to get hit a country mile anywhere.”
Things weren’t as bad as they seemed, though. His fastball command was erratic, but his curveball was sharp and carried a lot of bite. His velocity also was good, sitting in the 96-98 mph range, touching 99 mph with his fastball. One scout in attendance also agreed he was squeezed by the umpire on at least four or five pitches. His breaking pitches aren’t where he’d like them to be, but that is generally the final hurdle in coming back from elbow ligament-replacement surgery.
“Here it is, I’m not even at a year, and my velocity is pretty much back to what it was,” Strasburg said. “I think that’s just because I worked my butt off for this whole time.”
He will pitch again in five days — most likely in Hagerstown as its the only affiliate home Monday — but nothing has been announced. Strasburg knows that he can only remain on rehab assignment for 19 more days and that the minor league seasons end shortly thereafter. The big leagues are calling, but he can’t think that far ahead yet.
“All I know is that I’ve got another outing,” Strasburg said. “The end of the minor league season is coming up pretty fast. I’m just trying to get healthy. Unfortunately, I got hurt so late last year that I really can’t do much this year.
“It’s not like I’m going to win a Cy Young in two weeks pitching in the big leagues. I’m just trying to get better, just trying to get stronger, just trying to get back the feeling that I had before and take that into the offseason.”