- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When he trudged to the dugout in Cincinnati nearly four weeks ago, Stephen Strasburg’s neck was tight and his mechanics skewed. For weeks, he had not looked like himself on the mound. It was time to take a step back.

On Tuesday, after an intimidating storm delayed first pitch by more than two hours, Strasburg returned, old form included. The right-hander notched his first scoreless outing of the season, limiting the Atlanta Braves to only four hits and one walk over five innings. The Nationals won, 3-1.

Afterward, Strasburg said the neck tightness that had plagued him was gone. The mechanical issues, he believes, have been fixed.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back to realize how bad it was,” Strasburg said. “Once I did, I was able to get back to what my body was supposed to feel like, instead of trying to just mentally grind through it. I feel a lot stronger, and it feels a lot more consistent now.”

Strasburg has dealt with a variety of issues this season, some injury related and some mechanical. A sprained left ankle that he sustained in spring training had lingering effects on the rest of his delivery early in the season. The ankle, Strasburg believes, caused him to alter his mechanics. That led to back soreness. The most recent ailment, diagnosed as a strained left trapezius muscle, followed. Strasburg entered Tuesday’s game with a 3-5 record and 6.55 ERA in his first 10 starts of the season.

SEE ALSO: The Rundown: After lengthy delay, Nationals down Braves

A trip to the disabled list helped. Strasburg took time to rest his ankle, among other maladies, and the Nationals examined his mechanics. Manager Matt Williams said he and pitching coach Steve McCatty watched film of Strasburg from the past three years in an attempt to identify any slight changes. They noticed that Strasburg was off line when delivering some of his pitches.

Tuesday’s return to the rotation signified a fresh start.

“He’s had some time to work on it and get that alignment straightened out,” Williams said before Tuesday’s game. “Tonight’s not going to be thinking about ‘Where’s my foot landing?’ It’s about getting outs, so hopefully, all of that work he’s done has allowed him to be free of mind in that regard and he can just go compete.”

Strasburg allowed one earned run and four hits over five innings in his only minor-league rehabilitation start at Double-A Harrisburg last week. Afterward, he told reporters that he felt “100 percent.” On Tuesday, he proved it.

For five innings, Strasburg pounded fastballs at Braves hitters, most of them at 97 mph with a few touching 98. He successfully kept the ball low in the zone early in the count, then elevated it with two strikes to induce flailing swings or weak contact.

“He just looked like he was a little more confident out there,” center fielder Denard Span said. “For me, in the past or earlier in the season, I could kind of tell what pitch was coming, to be honest with you, from center field. But tonight, he looked a little different. Something just looked different. He looked like he was keeping hitters off balance. It was kind of catching me off guard what was coming out of his hand.”

Strasburg was expected to pitch between 95 and 100 pitches Tuesday. He threw 94. Under normal circumstances, Williams said, the right-hander would have returned to the mound for the sixth inning. Instead, he was removed from the game after five.

Statistics aside, it was an important step. Strasburg said he felt strong and was not thinking about his mechanics.

“Yeah, I think that was the No. 1 goal going out there,” he said. “All this time I’ve been working on the mechanics and working on fine-tuning things. But when you’re out there between the lines, you have to go out there and compete. So I wasn’t going to think about mechanics at all. I was just going to go out there and give it everything I have.”

With Strasburg’s return, a Nationals rotation that was without two of its key cogs last week is now whole again. Doug Fister, who rejoined the team last week after missing a month with right forearm tightness, will start on Thursday. Meanwhile, Tanner Roark, who started in place of Strasburg and Fister, moved back to the bullpen, pitching two scoreless innings of relief Tuesday.

Despite stellar performances in his first three big-league starts, Joe Ross was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday to make room for Strasburg on the active roster. Williams said the team did not consider keeping Ross in the major-league bullpen because of his limited experience as a reliever. It’s unclear whether he will rejoin the Nationals this season.

“I told him to be ready,” Williams said. “You never know in this game what may happen, so we have to make sure that he continues to progress and do what he needs to do in case he gets that call again. But it’s never easy for a player to be told, especially after having success like that, that they’re not going to be here, but he understands where we’re at and he’ll be ready if he’s called upon again.”

NOTES: After Tuesday’s game, the Nationals announced that Kimberly Knorr, wife of bench coach Randy, has died. … Ian Desmond received a day off on Tuesday. Danny Espinosa started at shortstop. … Aaron Barrett played catch on flat groundTuesday afternoon, the next step in his rehabilitation process. He has been on the 15-day disabled list since June 12 with a right bicep strain.

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