The surgery took just 15 minutes. But when Stephen Strasburg woke up, his wrist wrapped in bandages, the Washington Nationals right-hander knew the operation had been a success. The lingering numbness — at best isolated to his thumb, at worst radiating through his whole hand — had disappeared.
Strasburg had first noticed that numbness when he arrived at Spring Training 2.0, the rapid summer camp leading to the altered 60-game slate last year. When less invasive solutions proved ineffectual, Strasburg’s season ended after five innings on the mound, a frustrating setback for a pitcher who had just been named the World Series MVP the previous October.
Strasburg’s glad he underwent the surgery, though, even if it meant missing a season. He’s back in West Palm Beach, Florida, working through a standard spring training regimen, with the expectation he’ll be back at his best come Opening Day.
“If he was ever going to get hurt and ever fix an issue, last year would’ve been the time,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I’m glad he got it fixed, and I’m glad he feels great. We’re going to move forward.”
Pitchers may have been impacted by the uncertainty surrounding the start of the 2020 campaign more than position players. During the three-month layoff from when MLB halted spring training to when the league opened up the summer camp, Strasburg kept throwing into a net.
He needed to keep his arm ready in case the season began in short order. But in retrospect, “it ended up hurting me more than helped me,” Strasburg said Sunday, his first public comments since Aug. 9.
“I don’t know if it was just like the intensity, ramping up really quick,” Strasburg said. “Obviously, when you go out there and you kind of push your body to another level too quickly, it has a tendency to tell you to stop.”
Strasburg missed his first few scheduled starts, then gave up five runs in 41⁄3 innings in his debut. On Aug. 14, the starter lasted 16 pitches before he walked off the mound, landed on the injured list and underwent surgery later that month.
In the time since then, Strasburg has focused on building back the strength and flexibility in his arm, wrist and hand. He said there are no residual effects from the procedure, and he hasn’t needed to make any changes to his mechanics.
But Strasburg can see — and feel — the benefits clearly. Now that he’s healthy, the strength training has “only improved the movement of my pitches,” he said.
Strasburg began throwing earlier than usual, too. He began lightly throwing two or three times a week in November instead of waiting until mid-December. While he normally begins throwing bullpens in January, the 32-year-old threw more of them this year, focusing on his fastball before adding his changeup and curveball to the mix.
“Endurance-wise, stamina-wise, I feel like I’m a lot further along than I have in years past,” Strasburg said. “I wanted to give myself some extra time to work through some mechanical things and be ready to go on Day 1.”
Strasburg is a key piece of Washington’s rotation. In the 2019 championship-winning season, Strasburg racked up 18 wins in 209 regular-season innings. In six postseason appearances, Strasburg posted a 1.98 ERA, pitching his best in the biggest moments before his 2020 season was cut short.
Strasburg threw his first bullpen of spring training on Friday, and Martinez said he looked “real good.” But Strasburg also looked good in a different sense. The numbness in his thumb is gone — and with it, so is Strasburg’s frustration.
“He came into spring training with definitely a different attitude,” Martinez said. “He’s smiling a lot more, laughing a lot more.”
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