The Nationals' darkest fears were realized on Wednesday, when Stephen Strasburg left his start after feeling a pinch in the back of his elbow, the same part of his body that had him on the disabled list for the past three weeks and the same area that was operated on in the Tommy John surgery he had back in 2010.
Now, they wait.
Strasburg will undergo an MRI on his right elbow on Thursday to determine what's next. It could be something minor. Or, it could be something that alters their season and the future of their franchise, just weeks before the 2016 playoffs begin.
Strasburg cruised through the first two innings on Wednesday in his first start since being activated from the DL. But in the top of the third, he winced in pain after several pitches. One of them, his 41st of the night, sailed past catcher Wilson Ramos and hit the backstop. The next one, his 42nd and final pitch, brought pitching coach Mike Maddux, head trainer Paul Lessard and manager Dusty Baker out of the dugout.
"That was a long walk," Baker said. "They called me out, and I saw a grimace on his face during a couple pitches, so I thought it would be best if Mike and the trainer went out, and then they called me out."
Strasburg walked off the mound and to the dugout covering his face with his glove. He stepped down and into the clubhouse, past teammates that approached him. The crowd at Nationals Park went dead silent. Everyone knew, this was bad.
"It was after a high fastball that he threw, he made a gesture like he was uncomfortable. That's when we came out and I saw the look on his face and you could tell there was discomfort and he was obviously upset about it," Ramos said. "When he said something, that his arm was bothering him, obviously I felt extremely bad."
Ramos later sent the Nats home with a walkoff win in the 11th inning with a double to beat the Braves. But that moment could only be celebrated so much by the Nationals. Strasburg - who signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension in May - is a franchise cornerstone and a longtime teammate of theirs.
"We were able to come back and win that game. But at the same time, despite the excitement, everybody is a little concerned and sad about the situation," Ramos said. "I know no matter what happens that it's going to be a little bit before we get Stephen back and he's a very important piece to this team. We're hopeful that it's sooner than later."
“It’s definitely not the best thing to look at," Lucas Giolito said. "I’ve been through it. A bunch of guys have been through it. I’m just hoping Stras is OK, it’s nothing serious and he’ll be back with the team."
Strasburg felt discomfort in his elbow as far back as the All-Star break in July. It was the first time he had experienced any elbow issues since having Tommy John surgery. But he made three more starts and it wasn't until his outing on Aug. 17 at the Colorado Rockies that the Nats realized he was hurt.
Strasburg went through a variety of tests, but the Nats felt strongly that his elbow was structurally sound, in part due the MRI he had in May before signing his extension. Strasburg came back quickly, without even needing a minor league rehab assignment.
"He did everything that was asked of him, he was cleared. He wasn't trying to be a hero. He said that he felt fine," Baker said. "But a lot of times you really don't know until you get into action. It's like guys who have pulled hamstrings. They say they're fine, then they run and jump and everything, and as soon as they get back in action they put a little extra."
Strasburg looked strong in his first two innings on Wednesday. He was hitting 97 miles per hour on his fastball and was sharp with his changeup, in particular. The Nats, of course, saw that as a good sign.
"We thought everything was fine because Ramos said he was throwing the heck out of the ball," Baker said. "He said his changeup was outstanding, and he had good command. And usually if something's wrong, you don't have command."
"It seemed like it was going very well," Ramos said. "He was throwing such a good game."
Then, everything changed within a matter of seconds.
"We're hoping that it's something minor, but again we'll find out more tomorrow," Baker said.
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