WASHINGTON -- Injuries have robbed Stephen Strasburg of virtually all of the second half, limiting him to just his 15th start due to two separate stints on the disabled list. Still, the Nationals were thrilled for Strasburg to return to the mound against the Phillies on Wednesday night, hoping he could close out the second half as strongly as he did last year.
Yet, few things have gone smoothly for the Nats this season, including Strasburg's rocky return during their 8-7 walk-off victory at Nationals Park. Strasburg struck out five and walked one, but allowed five runs on seven hits in four innings. Most concerning was his fastball velocity, which decreased steadily throughout his 84-pitch outing, averaging 93.6 mph on the night, compared to an average of 95.3 mph on the season.
By the fourth inning, Strasburg's fastball velocity had dipped into the low 90s. He threw three fastballs in that inning to Cesar Hernandez -- a first-pitch heater that registered at 92 mph before two that were clocked at 91.8 and 91.7 -- before Hernandez eventually grounded into an inning-ending double play. Strasburg had missed the past month with a pinched nerve in his neck and had not completed a Minor League rehab outing before returning to the Majors, so manager Dave Martinez and Strasburg both attributed his declining velocity to a lack of endurance.
"They asked me if I wanted a rehab assignment. I said, 'We're kind of at the point of no return,'" Strasburg said. "So just got to go out there when you feel good enough to go, you go. And you give everything you have."
After spending nearly all of the past two months on the sidelines fuming -- as he described it -- at his inability to contribute, Strasburg wanted to return to the mound to start against a division rival ahead of the Nats in the standings. He seemed hopeful a lack of endurance was the only reason his velocity dipped, but he was far from certain. He battled inflammation in his right shoulder before the neck injury landed him on the DL, and he has not dealt with the combination of the two injuries before in his career.
"I mean, it's the first time I've really dealt with the shoulder injury, so I think that's something new," he said. "It's just going to take some time. Even the doctors said this nerve issue is not going to just fix itself overnight. It takes a few months, but at least I'm not getting the symptoms anymore."
The game began strong for Strasburg, who struck out the first two batters with a pair of curveballs that froze Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins. The Phillies quickly turned it around and hammered Strasburg for four consecutive hits -- two of them doubles -- in the three-run first inning, including a two-run homer from Maikel Franco.
Strasburg tossed a scoreless second before Justin Bour added a solo home run in the third inning and Roman Quinn produced a run-scoring single in the fourth. As his velocity dipped in that fourth, Martinez noticed Strasburg appeared gassed and told him immediately as he returned to the dugout that his night was done.
"I'm proud of him," Martinez said. "He went out here when we needed him, and he competed."