Stephen Strasburg's rough return overshadows Nats' walk-off win

WASHINGTON -- Don't let the crazy finish fool you.

Yes, the Washington Nationals defied the odds, overcoming a rocky return by Stephen Strasburg to beat the Phillies 8-7 in dramatic fashion. Sure, Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off, replay-review, two-run homer off Philadelphia closer Seranthony Dominguez helped the Nats clinch a huge series between NL East rivals. Indeed, it's the first time since mid-May that Washington has taken a series from a team with a winning record.

But that's all window dressing. The cold hard truth -- the tummy-turning takeaway for a Nats squad that's trying to go all Cinderella down the stretch -- is that much like the rest of Washington's season, Strasburg's return did not go according to plan.

The hope was that Strasburg, making his first start in more than a month and only his second since June 8, would show no ill effects from the shoulder and neck issues that have plagued him, and would provide the Nats with a much-needed boost. But that's not how it went down.

Right from the outset, Strasburg struggled. After fanning Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins to start the game, the 30-year-old righty gave up back-to-back doubles to Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Bour, then served up a 410-foot bomb to Maikel Franco. By the time Strasburg managed to retire the side, he'd already thrown 31 pitches.

Although he rebounded with a quick second inning (1-2-3 on 11 pitches), he ran into more trouble in the third, when Bour crushed a 95 mph fastball to dead center for Philly's second jack of the game. After a fourth inning in which he yielded two hits and a walk, Strasburg's night was done. Based on his performance, so too are the Nationals.

Back on June 8, when Strasburg made his last start before landing on the disabled list, Washington was 10 games over .500 and had a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Since then, the Nats are nine games under .500, and heading into Wednesday, they had a 14 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Most, if not all, of whatever hope there was -- let's call it 13.99 of that 14 percent -- was tied directly to Strasburg and his ability to hit the ground running. Instead, he hit the skids.

As concerning as Strasburg's final line was -- four innings, seven hits, five earned runs, two home runs -- perhaps even more alarming was his velocity. Of the 39 fastballs he threw against the Phillies, not a single one reached the 95.99 mph that his heater had averaged in his first 14 outings this year. The nine fastballs that he delivered in his fourth and final frame on Wednesday averaged 92.2 mph, almost four full ticks slower than his season average. The velo drop was so uncharacteristic for Strasburg that the stadium scoreboard misidentified at least one of his off-tempo fastballs as a changeup.

"I don't really know," Strasburg said when asked what might have led to his decreased velocity. "I saw it too. I'd like to think that it's -- I don't know if it's rust. I think it's just endurance. Hopefully that's what it is."

Whether it's simply rust isn't clear at this point. What is clear, though, is that this return didn't look or feel like a typical Strasburg return.

Over the past few years, whenever the former No. 1 overall pick has come back from injury, he has been borderline dominant immediately. Last August, after returning from a four-week DL stint, he gave up five earned runs over his final eight starts. This time around, he gave up five earned runs in his first start back, a sign that perhaps this injury isn't like the others.

"It's the first time I've really dealt with the shoulder injury," said Strasburg, who was initially sidelined in June because of shoulder inflammation, then went back on the shelf in July with what was classified as a pinched nerve in his neck. "So I think that's something new. 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."

Unfortunately for the Nationals, who cruised to back-to-back division titles the past two years but are currently on the outside looking in, they don't have the luxury of time. It's a fact that's hardly lost on Strasburg, who took the mound Wednesday without the customary benefit of ramping up his workload in the minors.

"They asked me if I wanted a rehab assignment. I said, 'We're kind of at the point of no return.' So just got to go out there. When you feel good enough to go, you go, and you give everything you have."

Between the pitcher hurrying back and the dire straits in which the Nats find themselves, Strasburg's return had a decidedly desperate feel to it. Although Wednesday's walk-off win helped ease that desperation ever so slightly, the Nationals certainly can't count on those kinds of heroics. Not with an offense that just lost its most complete hitter (Daniel Murphy was surprisingly traded to the Cubs on Tuesday). Not with a patchwork bullpen that's missing multiple key pieces (closer Sean Doolittle, setup man Ryan Madson) and has had all kinds of trouble locking down games recently. Not with a rookie manager whose squad has elevated the losing of close contests to something of an art form (13-21 in one-run games).

In other words, if the Nationals are going to conjure up some magic and somehow make it to the postseason again -- whether it's by overtaking the Phillies and Braves and winning the East, or by leapfrogging their way into a wild-card berth -- they'll need Strasburg to be at his best. Or close to it. On Wednesday, he was admittedly neither.

"It was a work in progress," Strasburg said. "It's obviously been awhile ... but what a finish."

What a finish, indeed. Just don't let it fool you.