WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg allowed two hits over five shutout innings Tuesday night in his first major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery, but the bullpen blew the lead as the Washington Nationals lost 7-3 to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The 2009 overall No. 1 draft pick again displayed the blurry fastball, the knee-buckling sinker and the fooled-again changeup that wowed the baseball world last year during his rookie season. Those magical days of “Strasmus” came to an abrupt end when his elbow popped on Aug. 21 in Philadelphia, and his long road back began when he had the now-familiar, career-saving ligament replacement surgery last Sept. 3.
The 23-year-old right-hander wound his way through six minor league rehab starts with four teams in four states over the last month, culminating with a majors return which was easily the most anticipated event of the season for a Nationals club trying to avoid a fourth consecutive last-place NL East finish. Daylong rains from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee threatened to postpone the game, but, when it came time to play, the weather put itself on hold for the pitcher wearing jersey No. 37 and those gotta-love-’em traditional high red knee-socks.
His workload carefully monitored, Strasburg threw 56 pitches, 40 for strikes. He struck out four, didn’t walk a batter, and a string of 11 in a row retired ended when Juan Rivera was generously given a hit for a ground ball that went under shortstop Ian Desmond’s glove. His fastball peaked at 99 mph.
The game started five minutes late, and Strasburg’s first pitch was a 96 mph fastball that was fouled away by Dee Gordon. On a 2-1 pitch — clocking 97 mph — Gordon punched the ball to left-center and legged out a double. He was left stranded when Strasburg retired the next three batters with two flyouts and a groundout.
Strasburg started cruising in the second, striking out Andre Ethier with a 90 mph changeup and Aaron Miles with a 99 mph fastball. He worked fast — just as he did as a rookie — barely pausing between pitches and making Lily look like an absolute slowpoke by comparison.
Sensing Strasburg’s night was nearly done, the crowd was on its feet with two outs in the fifth. Strasburg rewarded them by getting Justin Sellers to foul out to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on a 97 mph fastball. Strasburg then headed toward the dugout, where he was greeted on the top step with a handshake from manager Davey Johnson.
Of course, there was no way Strasburg could match his major league debut, when he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates on June 8, 2010. He finished 5-3 as a rookie, with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts.