- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2016

A man who rarely speaks to the media delivered a crucial sentence Thursday afternoon. With four words, Washington Nationals trainer Paul Lessard alleviated the most devilish of fears after starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg left Wednesday’s night game because of a “pinch” in the back of his right elbow.

“The ligament is good,” Lessard said.

From the owner’s box to the top of the right field stands, a collective “phew” was dispatched. For now. Strasburg has a flexor mass strain, something that is its own complication and does not rule out further issues. However, his ulnar collateral ligament is not torn. There is not a second Tommy John surgery around the corner for Strasburg, who signed a $175 million contract extension in May.

There is no timetable for his return, Lessard said. The next four or five days will be used to reduce pain and swelling. Lessard said Strasburg’s season is not over. It also is not in motion, at the moment.

Strasburg’s acute injury to his flexor mass -— which is on the the interior of his right forearm -— occurred the night he was returning from a past elbow irritation. His prior problem was labeled simply “elbow soreness” by the organization. He departed Wednesday night’s game abruptly in the top of the third inning after throwing his 42nd pitch, a slider, which caused him to grimace. Lessard and pitching coach Mike Maddux went to the mound to see what was wrong.

“Everyone was concerned, did he re-injure that Tommy John ligament and the answer is no,” Lessard said.

Strasburg was not in the clubhouse following Wednesday night’s game. Nor was he around Thursday. To deliver the news, the Nationals took the rare step of having Lessard speak to the media before manager Dusty Baker participated in his daily press conference.

Baker said he was relieved. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in 2010 to repair the torn UCL in his high-priced right arm. His actions following the release of his final pitch Wednesday night immediately raised concerns Strasburg had injured his UCL again. Thursday’s MRI muted those concerns.

“I did a lot of praying last night that it wouldn’t be as serious as everybody was panicking about because how do you get worried about something that you don’t know what it is?” Baker said. “I think it’s human nature to think the worst of all situations. And personally I like to think the best of most situations and not let people influence my mind.”

The pain that Strasburg has now in his elbow is different than what forced him to the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 22. Lessard explained the past soreness, which Strasburg said he began to feel at the All-Star break, was from swelling in the back of Strasburg’s elbow.

“Normally they come around very well with treatment and strengthening programs,” Lessard said. “It’s not a season-ending injury, but we still need to take time that he’s nice and strong because of his past.”

For a comparison point, Nationals right-hander Mat Latos was diagnosed with a flexor mass strain on April 13, 2014 when playing for the Cincinnati Reds. He next pitched in the majors June 14 of that year.

The latest injury is Strasburg’s third of the season. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of an “upper back strain” earlier in the season before having his two elbow issues. The Nationals now face a complicated decision-making process which will grapple with pride, pursuit and preservation.

When Strasburg went on the disabled list in August, he and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo contended the move was precautionary. Rizzo went as far as to say that Strasburg could pitch were the pennant race tight and demanding. Instead, with a comfortable lead in hand, Strasburg was placed on the disabled list to focus on healing and stretching.

Strasburg wanted to pitch through the pain, he said, which he had been doing since the All-Star break despite decreasing range of motion in his arm following each start. So, within the decision-making factors will be Strasburg’s competitive preference to pitch.

The Nationals also are in first place, sitting as the No. 2 betting favorite to win the World Series. Baker has been chasing a second World Series title since he won one as a player in 1981. He’s managing his fourth major league team 23 years after he managed his first. He managed the San Francisco Giants to the National League pennant and a World Series spot in 2002. They lost to the Anaheim Angels in seven games. The Nationals organization has never reached the World Series since its inception as the Montreal Expos in 1969.

“Everybody wants to win but nobody wants to push,” Baker said. “You got to kind of — hopefully can you can do both.”

The organization placed a $175 million commitment in Strasburg’s hands four months ago. He was positioned to become a free agent at the end of the season, where he would have been the kingpin of a mediocre pitching class. Instead, he is under contract until 2023. His future, however it plays out, is in the District.

Lastly, the pitchers lined up to replace Strasburg have issues. Prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez have been largely ineffective. A.J. Cole, who started Thursday night, has been steady, but not spectacular. Joe Ross, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list July 3 because of right shoulder inflammation, is progressing well, according to Baker. Still, the Nationals do not know when or if he will rejoin the rotation.

“We have the personnel that we have,” Baker said. “You can’t count on somebody else coming in here. So we have to do the best for the situation with what we have and then make a determination on who is to take his place now and possibly later or is it a better option to not have Stephen or do we not count Stephen out? Those are our options.”

Lessard answered the key question Thursday. Several unanswerable ones followed.

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