One of Strasburg's warmup pitches bounced past his catcher and to the backstop at Municipal Stadium, then his third pitch of the game hit leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar on the shin. Strasburg dealt with a small strike zone and non-strike calls on check swings as much as he had to overcome himself.
"That's kind of been the thing I've been having a tough time with," Strasburg said after facing the Rangers' Class A affiliate with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner on hand. "It got better as the game went on, once I just trusted the break instead of trying to throw the filthiest breaking ball ever. It's a feel pitch, and it's the last thing that comes. The more and more times I throw it, the better it will get."
Strasburg cited extra adrenaline when discussing his 27-pitch first inning, but he recovered to throw his most pitches of any start so far -- including 40 for strikes. He struck out six -- four swinging, two looking -- walked one, and hit Profar, MLB.com's 14th-ranked prospect.
The former No. 1 overall Draft pick consistently threw his fastball between 96 and 98 mph since beginning his rehab and said his changeup was back the moment he stepped onto a mound. But his breaking ball command comes and goes. It appeared in his second start with Class A Potomac, but control was harder to come by on Monday.
"Just talking to [Nationals pitching coach Steve] McCatty the past few days really helped me in establishing the mindset I need to throw a breaking ball," Strasburg said. "Right now, it's all about proving it to myself, and the only way I can do that is to keep throwing it. It's still not where it was. All of my other pitches are better than they were before, so I'm just waiting for that to be the same."
Strasburg allowed a pair of runs, but only one was earned thanks to some defensive miscues in the third inning. He struck out Profar to start the frame, then induced three ground balls to shortstop. Jason Martinson could not handle the first, then threw another over the first baseman's head, which allowed a run to score.
More than defensive miscues, hitters' approaches -- or lack thereof -- in Class A have caused problems for Strasburg.
He pitched with Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse before debuting with Washington last June, but all of his rehab starts have come in Hagerstown or Potomac. The Nationals want to keep all of his starts at home, and that means a likely return to Syracuse for his next start in five days.
"I think it would help me out a lot," Strasburg said. "It's different when guys try to ambush you on every pitch that comes close. I started in Harrisburg last year and went to Syracuse, where guys had an approach and I learned to set them up. At this level, I don't even have a chance to set them up because they're already swinging at it."
The Nationals said Strasburg would throw four innings or 65 pitches on Monday. It took 27 pitches to escape the first inning, but Strasburg got through the second on 12 pitches and would have repeated the act in the third, if not for Martinson's first error.
Instead, he faced two more batters and left after three innings. Hickory finished off a 3-1 victory, saddling Strasburg with the loss.
Strasburg felt strong afterward, but at least two more starts remain before a return to Washington in September -- a once-unlikely prospect that he took another step toward Monday, just a year and a day removed from suffering his elbow injury.
"I wasn't expecting to be here," Strasburg said. "It's just the nature of the beast. I did everything I possibly could to not get hurt. Now I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get back to DC."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.