See if this sounds familiar: A young power pitcher has a career year for a division-winning National League club. The next season, however, his performance drops off precipitously, injuries bite and the hand-wringing begins.

Yes, we’re talking about Stephen Strasburg, who left Friday’s game between the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds in the second inning with “a tight muscle in his neck,” per‘s Bill Ladson. 

But we could also be conjuring Mark Prior, the former Chicago Cubs stud who rose as far and as fast as Strasburg before a steep and tragic fall.

First, let’s get back to Strasburg: Even before’s Friday’s early exit, the 26-year-old right-hander was having a disastrous campaign.

Entering the start against Cincinnati, Strasburg owned an unsightly 6.50 ERA, and that didn’t even paint the whole, ugly picture, as’s Andrew Simon notes:

The neck issue marks the second time Strasburg has dealt with an injury this season. On May 5, he left a game against the Miami Marlins with a balky back. He made his next scheduled start May 12 against the Arizona Diamondbacks and proceeded to cough up seven earned runs in 3.1 innings.

Yes, we’re talking about a couple of rough months. They don’t erase Strasburg’s brilliant 2014, when he posted a 3.14 ERA and paced the National League with 242 strikeouts in 215 innings.

But this feels like more than a calamitous blip or a temporary funk. It feels ominous, like smoke pouring from the engine of a finely tuned sports car.

And, most troublingly, it calls to mind the sad saga of the aforementioned Chicago ace. 

In 2003, you’ll recall, Prior racked up 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings, remarkably similar to Strasburg’s 2014 totals. 

That year, Chicago vaulted to the NLCS but fell just short of a World Series trip, losing to an underdog wild-card team. The eerie parallels continue. 

The next season, Prior missed time with an Achilles injury. When he came back, his ERA ballooned. More injuries and an eventual shoulder surgery followed, and by 2007 Prior was out of the big leagues for good.

And here’s where we arrive at a strange twist in the Prior/Strasburg comparison. In 2012, the Nats controversially elected to shut down Strasburg in September, even though they were in the thick of the playoff hunt and wound up winning the NL East but losing in the division series.

Washington did it because Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, was on an innings limit to help preserve his arm for the long haul.

That mindset, in part, was a reaction to Prior’s fate, as Sports Illustrated‘s Cliff Corcoran spells out:

Despite his abbreviated career, Prior has a significant legacy within the game. Beyond his place in the narrative of the Cubs’ continued misfortunes, his injuries proved to be the flashpoint in the increased sensitivity to pitch counts around the game. The need to protect pitchers’ arms from fatigue was a battle that many in the advanced analysis community were already fighting before Prior came into the league, but the confluence of his heavy workloads in 2003 and his subsequent injuries made that message sink in within the game.

Now, despite treating Strasburg with kid gloves, Washington faces the very real possibility that the former No. 1 overall pick is damaged goods.

We don’t mean to be overly fatalistic. The news on this latest injury isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. There’s still time for Strasburg to click back into gear.

The stuff has been there, intermittently, as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told‘s Ladson.

“When he is feeling healthy and he says he is healthy, his stuff shows me that he is healthy, [and] he is proven to be one of the top pitchers in the league,” Rizzo said, per Ladson. “I think he hasn’t pitched the way he wants to. We have seen flashes of it, but he hasn’t been consistent enough.”

The consistency may return, along with the dominance. But with each meltdown start, each new twinge and setback, the rumble of concern will grow louder. The fears will ratchet up. The memories of fallen aces, of the Mark Priors, will keep nagging.

Stephen Strasburg’s story isn’t written yet. Right now, though, he’s in the midst of a troubling chapter.


All statistics current as of May 29 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted. 

Read more MLB news on