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.
Strasburg's teammates, however, weren't as cooperative as Mother Nature. He was set to get to win when he departed with a 3-0 lead, but the bullpen allowed the Dodgers to tie it in the sixth. Then even the weather gave up on the game, at least temporarily, as the rain returned in the seventh to force a 31-minute delay and empty the ballpark of all but a hardy few.
Rod Barajas' two-run double in the eighth inning off Henry Rodriguez (3-3) put the Dodgers ahead for good, giving Kelly Jansen (2-1) the win.
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.
Strasburg even scored his first career run, part of a three-run second inning. He reached by laying down a sacrifice that Dodgers starter Ted Lily turned into a two-base throwing error. Strasburg wound up at second on the play, went to third on Desmond's single and came home on Jayson Werth's groundout.
Only a few thousand fans were in the stands when Strasburg started tossing in the outfield at 6:44 p.m., and there were dozens — instead of hundreds — peering over the railing when he entered the bullpen to start his warmups. Those who were in their seats gave him a long standing ovation as he made the long, slow walk to the dugout, accompanied by catcher Wilson Ramos and pitching Steve McCatty. More filtered in as the game went along, but Nationals Park was never more than half-full despite the announced attendance of 29,092 — well short of the expected sellout.
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.
NOTES: Strasburg was activated from the 60-day disabled list before the game. The Nationals also recalled RHPs Yunesky Maya and Craig Stammen, LHP Atahualpa Severino and OF Corey Brown from Triple-A Syracuse, and purchased the contracts of RHP Brad Peacock and INF Steve Lombardozzi from Syracuse. Peacock, Severino, Lombardozzi and Brown made their major league debuts. ... Washington moved RHP Cole Kimball (right shoulder) to the 60-day DL, released RHP Adam Carr and designated RHP Garrett Mock for assignment. ... The Dodgers recalled C Tim Federowicz, RHP John Ely and INF-OF Jerry Sands from Triple-A Albuquerque. ... Los Angeles 3B Casey Blake underwent season-ending surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his neck. ... RHP Chien-Ming Wang (2-3) will start for Washington on Wednesday against LHP Dana Eveland (1-0). Eveland is 0-1 with a 7.94 ERA in two games against Washington. ... Ramos has a 10-game hitting streak. ... Washington 2B Danny Espinosa struck out his first three times at the plate to give him seven Ks in a row, the longest streak by Nationals player since baseball returned to the nation's capital, according to STATS LLC.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP