WASHINGTON -- Elegant pitching took place in the top of the fourth inning Sunday when Anthony Santander led off the inning.
Stephen Strasburg threw him a 79-mph curveball for a called strike. An 87-mph changeup was a ball. Another changeup produced a swinging strike. A third consecutive changeup led to another swinging strike and an out.
Strasburg needed just 43 pitches to finish four innings in his season debut. The problem was he went to pitch the fifth -- and that his achy right hand still has mild issues.
He recorded one out, faded rapidly and was removed after allowing five sudden runs. The hook was too late. The Nationals fell behind, 5-0, and were on the verge of a weekend sweep at the hands of the Orioles and a troublesome 4-8 record before the game was suspended because of oddball circumstances with a malfunctioning tarp.
“You can look at the negative, or you can look at the positive,” Strasburg said. “I think there was a lot more positives. I'm just going to focus on that. Obviously command and execution wasn't very good there in the fifth. They just hit a bunch of singles and found the right spots. So they made me pay for it.”
Strasburg’s start came two weeks after he was supposed to be on the game mound for the first time in 2020. A right wrist impingement caused a nerve problem in his right hand, which led to pain in his thumb. All of the issues with the hand subsided after time off and treatment. He threw a bullpen session Wednesday. Sunday, “Seven Nation Army” poured out of the stadium speakers for the first time this season.
The first four innings showed a pitcher with lowered velocity, but exceptional command. In essence, Strasburg looked like himself. Plenty of curveballs, changeups and outs. Of his 69 pitches, 37 were curveballs or changeups.
Javy Guerra quickly worked to warm up when Strasburg faltered in the fifth inning. The first out of the inning came on a 101.1-mph line drive from Dwight Smith Jr. It was a harbinger.
Austin Hays hit a line drive to right field. Chance Sisco hit a line drive to right field. Davey Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard came up the dugout steps to head toward the mound because Strasburg shook his right hand. Strasburg waived them back to their spots, though there was an issue.
“To be honest, I felt it,” Strasburg said of his hand pain. “I don't know if it was necessarily like fatigue or just not having necessarily the stamina built up quite yet. But it's something where I don't think I'm doing any long-term harm on it. But it does have an impact on being able to feel the baseball and being able to commit to pitches. That's something I haven't quite figured out how to pitch through it yet, so I think the goal is to continue to get built up and get the pitch count up to where that won't be flaring up over the course of the start.”
He walked the next batter. Pitching coach Paul Menhart went to talk to him. This, presumably, is when Strasburg should have been removed from the game. He was left in.
Bryan Holaday singled. A run scored. Hanser Alberto doubled. Two runs scored. Santander singled. Two runs scored.
Guerre came in. Strasburg departed.
The good news is Strasburg finally made a start in 2020. And, Max Scherzer is expected to return to the mound on Tuesday in New York.
The bad news is 25 percent of Strasburg’s potential starts are over. Starting pitchers were only in line for 12 this year. He missed two, then failed in the fifth inning in what would have been his third start. That gives him nine to go -- if the season makes it to the end -- with a hand that isn’t quite right.
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