As Stephen Strasburg recovered from an upper back strain, Dusty Baker was in no hurry to rush the right-handed pitcher back to the starting rotation.
“I’m not pessimistic about it, but at this point we still got halfway to go,” Baker said last Thursday when asked if Strasburg would return during the weekend.
Then on Saturday Baker revealed that Strasburg, who hadn’t pitched in a game since June 15, was scheduled to return on Sunday. Still, the Nationals waited until after Strasburg fully completed his warmup routine to activate him — and in doing so placed starter Joe Ross on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
That cautious approach extended throughout the game, even as Strasburg held the Cincinnati Reds hitless through 6 2/3 innings. After his 109th pitch, a 93-mph fastball to Brandon Phillips, Baker pulled Strasburg for reliever Blake Treinen, even though Strasburg got Phillips to ground out to second base to keep his no-hitter intact.
“We were trying got get him through the seventh, but his pitch count got kind of high, especially his first time out there,” Baker said. “It’s tough taking a guy out of a no-hitter, but we have to think about the future and where he had come from off the DL.”
Asked whether he was disappointed by Baker’s decision, Strasburg said, “I understand where he’s coming from, yeah. There’s more important things, hopefully, down the road for this team.”
Strasburg sustained the injury — which included two ribs popping out of place — while working out. He threw a bullpen session last Tuesday, which he said was when he began feeling healthy enough to return.
In the first inning, Strasburg threw 25 pitches and walked two of the first three batters he faced — shortstop Zack Cozart and first baseman Joey Votto — but maneuvered out of the inning safely.
He settled in after that and retired the Reds in order in four of the next five innings. Strasburg issued a leadoff walk to Votto in the top of the fourth, but then struck out right fielder Jay Bruce and induced two groundouts to get out of the inning.
After Strasburg struck out Bruce to begin the seventh inning, he walked third baseman Eugenio Suarez and engaged in a seven-pitch battle with Phillips before getting him to ground out.
“I felt pretty good,” said Strasburg, who improved to 11-0 with a 2.71 earned-run average this season.
“I just told myself today not to have too high expectations as far as execution and just really make it a point not make it affect the next one. It was weird, warming up my changeup was the only pitch I could really locate, and then I couldn’t find the strike zone with it today, but the curveball and slider were really good.”
Baker said the team was equally cautious about the decision to place Ross, who pitched 5 1/3 innings on Saturday in a 9-4 loss to the Reds, on the disabled list. The 23-year-old allowed four runs on 10 hits. Following the game, Baker said the team was “looking into some things,” regarding Ross’ velocity.
According to brooksbaseball.com, Ross’ fastball averaged 92 mph against the Reds. In his previous start against the New York Mets June 27, he averaged 94. Baker said Ross had an MRI examination on Sunday, which confirmed the inflammation in the pitcher’s right shoulder.
With the injury to Ross, Lucas Giolito will remain with the Nationals. Giolito, ranked as the top prospect in baseball, was called up June 28. He pitched four innings and allowed just one hit in his debut against the New York Mets before the game was delayed. The Nationals won, 5-0.
“We were limiting [Ross’] innings in the first place,” Baker said. “We wanted to make sure Joe is gonna be ready toward the end of the season…because this guy can come up big in postseason. So the decision was, like I said yesterday, we saw his velocity go down on the radar gun. We asked him to tell us the truth, and he did. He said he was feeling some discomfort. So we’re gonna try to quiet it down. Fortunately for us, we have Giolito there to take his place. That’s what went into the decision. Joe’s a valuable piece of this team for a long time.”