If the first step toward solving a problem is admitting you have a problem, Stephen Strasburg crossed an important bridge at some point during his 24-day stint on the disabled list.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back to realize how bad it was,” the right-hander said. “Once I did, I was able to get back to what my body was supposed to feel like, instead of trying to just mentally grind through it. I feel a lot stronger, and it feels a lot more consistent now.”
Strasburg said this early Wednesday morning, after he and everyone else at Nationals Park had waited out a 2-hour, 12-minute rain delay, one final hold-up before he could take the mound for the first time since May 29 and prove to himself and the world he still has what it takes to be one of baseball’s most dynamic pitchers.
Strasburg isn’t a finished product yet, but with five scoreless innings in the Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the Braves late Tuesday night, the enigmatic 26-year-old looked more like his old self than he had at any previous point in 2015. And that was an especially encouraging sign for the organization that has invested so much in him.
“I just think that tonight was a really good step for him,” manager Matt Williams said.
Though the Nationals espoused confidence in Strasburg heading into this start, nobody knew for sure what would happen once he took the mound to face a big-league lineup again. Placed on the 15-day DL after the worst two months of his professional career — a 6.55 ERA, 81 baserunners allowed in only 45 1/3 innings — he ostensibly needed to let a strained left trapezius muscle heal.
While there were some actual physical ailments affecting him, Strasburg’s biggest problem throughout were poor mechanics. He worked extensively with pitching coach Steve McCatty over the last three weeks, watching old video of his throwing motion and paying particular attention to the alignment of his entire body as he strode toward the plate.
After several throwing sessions on flat ground and the bullpen, a simulated game against teammates in Milwaukee and then a rehab start at Class AA Harrisburg, Strasburg was able to pitch Tuesday night confident his mechanics were proper.
“I think that was the No. 1 goal going out there,” he said. “All this time I’ve been working on the mechanics and working on fine-tuning things. But when you’re out there between the lines, you have to go out there and compete. So I wasn’t going to think about mechanics at all. I was just going to go out there and give it everything I have.”
From the get-go, it appeared he had solved the problem. Strasburg pumped out 97-98 mph fastballs in the top of the first and never let up the rest of his evening. He threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes, scattered three singles and a double while striking out six (all on high fastballs).
The difference was noticeable to all.
“It looked like … I don’t know, he just looked like he was a little more confident out there,” center fielder Denard Span said. “For me, in the past or earlier in the season, I could kind of tell what pitch was coming, to be honest with you, from center field. But tonight, he looked a little different. Something just looked different. He looked like he was keeping hitters off-balance. It was kind of catching me off guard what was coming out of his hand. I think some of that was mechanics. But he just pounded the strike zone, went after hitters and he was aggressive.”
The only quibble with Strasburg’s performance was his high pitch count, the byproduct of 22 pitches fouled off by the Braves and of Strasburg’s less-than-perfect command of his curveball and changeup. But that was a minor quibble, and something he and the club expect to improve as he gets back into a regular, 5-day rotation.
“They did do a good job of working up the pitch count and fighting pitches off, but that’s not something I’m going to worry about,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and make them hit the fastball.”
That mindset, perhaps above all else, may have represented the biggest hurdle Strasburg overcame during his DL stint. At times in the past, he may have worried too much about trying to tweak too many parts of his approach to pitching. Maybe there were too many thoughts swirling through his head.
“I think that’s something that talking to a lot of guys in the clubhouse while I was away really kind of shed some light on what my strengths, what my weaknesses are,” he said. “I really just tried to pitch to my strengths.”
Strasburg’s strengths were on full display Tuesday night. And if this was a tease of things to come, the Nationals will rest easy knowing they’ve rediscovered their dominant right-hander once again.