bbn-nats-strasburg

Stephen Strasburg flexes his pitching hand during the first inning of a game against the Orioles on Aug. 14, 2020.

Since he was last seen on a baseball field, exiting in the middle of the first inning last August, Stephen Strasburg underwent carpal tunnel surgery, started his winter program a bit earlier than usual, then arrived at spring training to rejoin the Washington Nationals’ rotation. He has already thrown one bullpen session in West Palm Beach, Fla. and is on track for another. If that goes well, there will be another. Then another.

And then, the Nationals hope, he’ll begin the regular season and find himself again.

“The numbness in my thumb just went away,” Strasburg said Sunday, speaking to reporters for the first time since Aug. 9, 2020. “I’ve really worked hard with our PT staff all offseason to strengthen everything around it. It’s definitely felt a lot better than it had for all last year.”

Strasburg says the August surgery lasted about 15 minutes. After it, with his thumb bandaged, he only had to rest before easing into his offseason throwing routine. But just the sight of him distressed last summer — shaking his hand behind the mound, mouth stuck in a grimace — was extra concerning for Washington. Strasburg has battled major and minor injuries through an 11-year career. At 32, before his first full season since winning World Series MVP, he’s used to adjusting for elbow soreness, shoulder inflammation or a nerve impingement in his neck. Mending is second nature by now.

The surgery’s timing was good in that it came in an otherwise down year for the club. It was bad, though, in that it was required two appearances after Strasburg signed a seven-year, $245 million contract. He faced 23 total batters in 2020. A reversion to 2019, when Strasburg was more durable than he had been in a half decade, would go a long way. The Nationals go as their rotation does, and that rotation depends on him.

“I aggravated it every time I tried to throw and basically would go from numbness in my thumb to numbness in my whole hand,” Strasburg said. “I don’t really try to look back too far to see why it happened. But obviously I’ve been throwing a baseball for a long time and it’s an injury that’s from repetitive use.”

His quick exit was the start of a bad year for the Nationals’ staff. Patrick Corbin led the National League in hits allowed. Max Scherzer, the club’s longtime ace, was not quite his usual self. And after Joe Ross opted out because of coronavirus concerns, the back of the rotation was mostly filled by Aníbal Sánchez, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. Starter innings were at a premium. By August, just a few weeks into a shortened schedule, the bullpen was totally gassed.

All pitchers had to deal with the odd stops and starts. Strasburg joined a list of big-name starters who suffered early season-ending injuries. But if he could go back to last March, and somehow knew the fate of MLB’s pandemic calendar, he would have paused workouts during the shutdown.

“It was very, very difficult circumstances for everybody. I did the best I could. I think, knowing my body, it was definitely a challenge with my history to try and keep everything feeling good on your own,” Strasburg said. “You don’t really have access to the training staff, strength coaches, to really just make sure everything is working properly. At the same time, you hold out hopes that we’ll be reporting back to spring training in two weeks and you’ve got to stay ready, got to stay ready, spending three months trying to throw into a net and be ready for the call.

“If I knew it was going to start when it did, I definitely would have just not picked up a baseball for some time. It ended up hurting me more than helped me.”

No parts of Strasburg’s delivery was changed by the surgery. Neither were any of his pitch grips. He says there are “no residual effects,” and Manager Dave Martinez has echoed that since workouts began Thursday. Strasburg should face teammates this week before exhibitions start Feb. 28. For the next six weeks, everything will be geared toward keeping him on track for the season-opening series with the New York Mets.

Recapturing what clicked in 2019, and what led to his huge contract, is the best outcome here. But something close to it would work, too.

“Think about it: He was MVP of the World Series the year before. A big part of our success, not only in 2019 but every year,” Martinez said. “He’s one of our workhorses. And not to see him out there was tough. But for me, if he was ever going to get hurt and ever fix an issue, last year would’ve been the time. I’m glad he got it fixed, and I’m glad he feels great.”

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