The sight of Stephen Strasburg grimacing after throwing several pitches Tuesday night, then being visited on the mound by a trainer, then being pulled after three ragged but hardly awful innings could not have been comforting to the Nationals or to fans who understandably fear the worst anytime something appears to physically be wrong with the right-hander.
Strasburg and the Nationals, though, gave the impression after Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Marlins that this latest ailment — discomfort under his shoulder blade — can be corrected with chiropractic work and isn’t a true shoulder or elbow injury that would be fair greater cause for concern.
“I think it’s something where I just need to get an adjustment, or something like that,” Strasburg said. “The best way I can put it: You’re driving a car fast over speed bumps. The irritation kind of rattles the cage a little bit.”
Strasburg is scheduled to visit a chiropractor Wednesday, something he admitted he’s done in the past. For now, the Nationals do not appear to believe this is an injury that would require a trip to the disabled list.
“I don’t think we make that decision yet,” manager Matt Williams said. “He’s perfectly fine otherwise. He’s had issues in the past with feeling something in his low back, or something like that. I wouldn’t imagine that’s serious, but we’ll have to see what the results tell us.”
Whatever the severity of this ailment proves to be, Strasburg clearly didn’t look comfortable on the mound Tuesday night. After waiting out a 28-minute rain delay before the game could commence, he grimaced several times after throwing pitches in the first inning, then again in the top of the second.
Strasburg said later the discomfort was noticeable when he tried to throw pitches away to right-handed batters, in to left-handed batters. It wasn’t an issue when throwing to the other side of the plate. He admitted feeling this during his last start in New York, though it was worse this time.
“It just kind of caused me to alter my mechanics a little too much, and [I] lost some command from it,” he said.
That side effect — altered mechanics — is what concerned the Nationals the most. If Strasburg was trying to compensate for the shoulder blade issue, he could cause more strain on his shoulder joint or elbow, and that could lead to a significant injury.
Williams and head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz did come to the mound to check on Strasburg after he bounced a throw to first base on a routine sacrifice bunt attempt in the top of the second. He insisted them he could continue to pitch, and they acquiesced. (Strasburg wound up retiring three straight batters to end the inning.)
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Strasburg faced five more batters in the top of the third, issuing a walk and allowing a groundball single but otherwise keeping the Marlins from scoring again. But after he returned to the dugout, having thrown 64 pitches, he was told his night was over.
“His pitch count got really high, got up there, and he was more and more uncomfortable with it as he went through the last inning,” Williams said. “Then when he got back in there, we decided we’re not gonna take that chance.”
There weren’t many obvious indications of Strasburg being less than 100 percent healthy. His fastball averaged 95 mph, his changeup 88 mph, his curveball 80 mph (all perfectly in line with his typical velocity so far this season).
His command, though, wasn’t as crisp as it usually is. And his physical reactions to certain pitches suggested something wasn’t right.
“His stuff was electric,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “He wasn’t hitting his spots — that kind of was a telltale sign — but man, he came out firing bullets. … The most important thing for us is we get him healthy, and not do any more damage than hopefully was done.”
The next step for Strasburg is unclear at this point. He’ll be examined by the chiropractor on Wednesday. At some point, the Nationals will have to decide whether he’s cleared to make his next scheduled start (Monday at Arizona).
“I think it’s probably just something that [for] one reason or another probably creeps up in there sometimes,” he said. “I’ve just got to get it fixed and hopefully get back out there for the next one.”