Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross to start minor league rehab assignments Tuesday

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MILWAUKEE — For weeks, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross have followed the same schedule, testing their arms under the beating sun in West Palm Beach, Fla. But this Tuesday, as they each progress toward a return to the majors, Strasburg and Ross will split to start minor league rehab assignments.

Strasburg will head to pitch for the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals. Ross will throw for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. The plan, detailed by Manager Dave Martinez on Sunday morning, is for the right-handers to log four innings and 60-plus pitches. Ross will be in Harrisburg for two reasons: He’s a bit further along than Strasburg, meaning the club wants to see him against better hitters. And since Strasburg’s recovery is more critical for the Nationals’ present and future, the front office wanted him at a closer site.

The Fred Nats play 55 miles from Nationals Park. It’s likely more than one team official gets better acquainted with the drive this week.

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“Now they’re actually competing in a regular scenario,” Martinez said when asked about the difference between simulated games and rehab starts. “You cant’ take them out after 15, 16 pitches an inning. They got to go out there and they got to compete. They got to get outs.”

The 33-year-old Strasburg is still recovering from last summer’s surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Ross, 29 and on the 60-day injured list, has been sidelined since having a bone spur removed from his throwing elbow in early March. Strasburg will face the Salem Red Sox at 7:05 p.m. Ross will square off with the Altoona Curve at 6 p.m.

If they can both rejoin the rotation, the Nationals would have to make decisions on two fringe starters, likely affecting Aaron Sanchez and rookie Joan Adon. To do so, Martinez has maintained Strasburg and Ross would need to comfortably throw six innings and 90 pitches. That means, at a minimum, Tuesday’s starts are the first of three appearances with minor league affiliates. If they check those on a five-day schedule, the soonest they could pitch for Washington is June 8.

In mid-March, once the Nationals reported for camp, Strasburg admitted he needed at least six weeks — the length of a normal spring training — before starting a regular season game. That took Opening Day out of the question. But once Martinez publicly wished Strasburg would make between 20 and 25 starts, it was clear Strasburg wouldn’t be back until at least mid-May.

That was the most optimistic view. More realistically, Strasburg would surface again in the first weeks of June. Since signing a seven-year, $245 million deal in December 2019, he has pitched only 26 2/3 innings. Back-to-back season-ending surgeries have kept that number frustratingly low for the Nationals.

Without him and Ross in 2022, the rotation entered Sunday ranked 29th in ERA (5.63) and 28th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage against (.812). A lot rides, then, on how they feel after throwing in live games Tuesday night. Strasburg has been pitching out of the windup for the first time in a half decade. Ross, expected to become a free agent in November, has been on the IL since suffering a partial tear in his elbow last August. Needless to say, they and the Nationals have been waiting for this.

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