BALTIMORE | Since soreness settled midseason into Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow — the one the Washington Nationals invested $175 million in a little more than three months ago — the 28-year-old has had trouble regaining his range of motion.
He’s insisted he can still pitch, saying he preferred to “gut it through,” but the Nationals took the ball away from him Monday. Strasburg was placed on the 15-day disabled list for the second time this season, this time a result of the elbow ache, ensuring once again Strasburg will not make 30 starts.
In six-plus seasons, Strasburg has made 23 starts or fewer four times. Last season, an ankle injury and a “knot” in his upper back caused him to miss more than a month. An upper back strain caused by weightlifting sent him to the disabled list the first time this season.
His body caused fervent debate early in his career when the Nationals shut him down following Tommy John surgery. It continues to deliver complications the last two seasons after a successful run the three seasons before when Strasburg made 28, 30 and 34 starts, respectively.
The timeline of Strasburg’s elbow soreness can be traced back to the All-Star break, according to Strasburg and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.
“Pretty much ever since the All-Star break I think I was losing flexibility and never getting it back,” Strasburg said.
“We’ve been monitoring it for a while, and we felt like the prudent thing to do — like we always have with our pitchers — was to give him this reset,” Rizzo said.
Oddly, Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker said he learned of Strasburg’s soreness Saturday. Strasburg came to him, Baker said, and explained that his elbow was sore but that he could continue to pitch. Baker told him it was “not hero time yet,” informed him to be checked further by the training staff and stop throwing. Rizzo said Strasburg did not receive an MRI exam, pointing out that the Nationals have recent MRI results from when they provided Strasburg his substantial extension in early May.
The various factions involved stressed that the move, retroactive to Sunday was compelled by precaution. Baker said Strasburg fought the decision. Strasburg said he wanted to “go out there and give it go” despite the soreness the last few weeks. Rizzo suggested Strasburg could pitch Monday if the Nationals’ circumstances were different. They entered the night 23 games over .500 and 8 1/2 games in front of the second-place Miami Marlins. Threats are distant.
“I think if we were later in the season and we had to have him pitch, he could pitch for us, and he would pitch for us,” Rizzo said.
Time on the disabled list will also allow Strasburg to mentally regroup. He has been battered throughout August, when his off-speed pitches stopped veering and his fastball flew across the middle of the plate more often. His August ERA is a stunning 10.19. He entered the All-Star break with a 2.62 ERA. Despite the bloated negative numbers, Strasburg said they were not a result of his elbow problem. He expects to return — and be improved — well before the postseason could begin.
Strasburg has continually worked on his body since entering the major leagues. His between-starts workouts are extensive, leaving him sweat-soaked when he walks through the clubhouse on days off. They can also be problematic. Strasburg injured his ankle last season in spring training while doing box jumps. His upper back strain from earlier this season was caused by weightlifting.
The current elbow soreness became more pronounced after each subsequent start. His post-start range of motion became less, his recovery time insufficient. It’s made him rethink his approach to body maintenance now that he is 28 years old. Flexibility will become more of a pursuit.
“Going out there and just doing the same weight-lifting and stuff in between without focusing on flexibility, probably need to switch that up a little bit,” Strasburg said. “I think that’s just kind of what happened over the last weeks.”
He noted that his 2010 Tommy John surgery to fix his torn ulnar collateral ligament meant future maintenance would be different.
“Your arm works a little bit differently when you do have a surgery like that,” Strasburg said. “I had it when I was young, so I think my body was in a little bit of a different spot. I am getting older.”
A.J. Cole was called up from Triple-A Syracuse to start in Strasburg’s place Monday night against the Baltimore Orioles. Prospect Reynaldo Lopez, slated to pitch Tuesday, is already in the rotation in place of Joe Ross, who has been on the disabled list since July 3 because of shoulder inflammation. The Nationals had to stall Ross’ rehabilitation because his shoulder continued to ache. He is playing catch at this point. Ross also appears en route to the bullpen. Triple-A Syracuse finishes its season Sept. 5. If Ross immediately began to make starts — which he will not — there would not be enough starts for him to work back into shape to re-enter the rotation. Ross pitched out of the bullpen at the end of last season.
Asked about Ross, Baker joked that he feels like his team is similar to a MASH unit. In the last two years, Strasburg has contributed to managers feeling that way.