Dave Martinez noticed there was something off about Stephen Strasburg from the first at-bat Tuesday night, when he missed the plate with three fastballs and a sinker to issue a four-pitch leadoff walk to Ronald Acuna Jr.
“He came out, the velo wasn’t quite there, and he started yanking balls again,” Martinez said. “And I thought, ‘Something doesn’t look right.’ Cause he doesn’t walk a guy the way he walked him.”
That prompted the first trip to the mound for Martinez and head trainer Paul Lessard. It wouldn’t be the last. After a comebacker deflected off Strasburg’s glove and hand in the second inning, the pair walked to the mound again. This time, Strasburg followed them back to the dugout, 30 pitches into his outing.
The worry didn’t stem from the line drive. Instead, Martinez said postgame that Strasburg suffered from tightness in his right trapezius muscle, which spans from his upper back to his shoulder and neck. And while Strasburg tried to pitch through the tightness, Martinez had no desire for the 32-year-old to risk a greater injury — not with Strasburg’s history.
“I told Paul, ‘I don’t want to see him go through it,’” Martinez said. “Let’s get him out, see what’s wrong with him, and we’ll have to figure it out. He couldn’t get it loose. Tried to get it loose, couldn’t get it loose.”
Strasburg will undergo an MRI at some point Wednesday. His early departure from the Nationals’ 11-6 win against the Braves at Truist Park puts Washington in a conundrum heading into Wednesday’s contest. Jon Lester will be on the mound, pitching off short rest, and the bullpen could be taxed once more.
Martinez employed six pitchers Tuesday, with Austin Voth throwing 50 pitches over three innings. Paolo Espino threw 18 pitches in one frame. Those two are both the logical long-relief options for the Nationals, although Espino might be the only one of those two available Wednesday in some form.
Martinez admitted he was concerned for Strasburg when he came to the plate to hit in the second inning. With a runner in scoring position, Strasburg tried to lay down two bunts before he struck out looking. Martinez is used to Strasburg swinging away in those situations.
“That raised my concern a lot,” Martinez said. “We didn’t give him the bunt [sign], we wanted him to swing. He took one swing and then went back to bunting. And then I told Paul, ‘We need to keep an eye on him.’ And his velo never got back and he was still moving his neck, head around. A line drive was hit back at him. And at that point, I said, ‘You know what, this is not fair to him. It’s not. So let’s go get him.’”
There’s added concern to tightness around Strasburg’s shoulder because it’s similar to what he suffered earlier in the campaign. Strasburg missed over a month due to right shoulder inflammation, and Tuesday night was his third start since he was activated off the injured list.
An injury derailed most of Strasburg’s 2020 season, too, when he required carpal tunnel surgery. He pitched five innings last year, and he’s featured for 20 2/3 frames this season, pitching to a 4.57 ERA.
“For us it’s frustrating, too, because we know what Stephen can be and we know that we need that guy if we’re going to get to where we want to go this year,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “I can tell you, it’s not for a lack of effort or for a lack of wanting to be out there. I’ve known Stephen for a long time and he wants the ball as much as anyone else, and he puts in as much work as anyone else. That’s what makes you feel even worse for him with whatever’s going on.”
Much of Strasburg’s career has been defined by injuries. He suffered a torn UCL during his rookie season in 2010, requiring elbow reconstruction surgery. The Nationals opted to shut Strasburg down ahead of the 2012 postseason to limit his innings after that operation. He landed on the injured list four times in 2015 and 2016.
But Strasburg was also a major cog in Washington winning the 2019 World Series. He won the World Series MVP award, starting Games 2 and 6 and combining to throw 14 innings while allowing four runs. That played a role in Strasburg earning a seven-year, $240 million deal to stay with the Nationals. But since signing that contract, he has pitched 26 2/3 innings for Washington.
Between the first and second inning Tuesday, Strasburg headed down the tunnel as he normally does. But Martinez, Lessard and pitching coach Jim Hickey all followed him. In the clubhouse, Strasburg tried to loosen up his trapezius muscle.
“They were working on it, trying to loosen it up,” Martinez said. “And like I said, it just didn’t get any better.”
So Martinez watched Strasburg closely when he returned in the second inning, and he didn’t like what he saw. Strasburg’s season average fastball velocity is 92 mph, according to FanGraphs. He only threw seven of his 30 pitches over 90 mph Tuesday.
Now the Nationals must wait to learn more of Strasburg’s condition Wednesday, hoping this is just a blip in Strasburg’s season rather than a serious blow.
“He came out for that second inning, and it just didn’t look right to me,” Martinez said. “His velo was down, and I’ve gotta be smart and figure out what’s going on with him. We’ll see.”