When Stephen Strasburg returns to a major league mound, 368 days after a surgeon replaced his torn ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon removed from his thigh what can we expect? We have only hints and guesses.
There are the radar gun readings from his minor league rehab starts, when he sat at 96 miles per hour and hit 99 with his fastball. He pumped first-pitch fastballs, mostly for strikes. He wanted to induce early contact, another defiant reminder that he is not, in his mind, a strikeout pitcher.
There are his pitching mechanics, almost the same as before, but with a slightly shortened stride and a less severe takeaway with his arms. Strasburg will not have quite the same posture when he separates his glove from his pitching hand, that defining motion that made it seem like, just before he whipped his right arm forward with, he was pointing to the sky.
There is history. Once pitchers finish the rehab Tommy John surgery necessitates, their stuff comes back first. Strasburg will offer at least traces of his old brilliance – the hissing fastball, the diving changeup, the biting curveball. It could be an uncontrolled kind of greatness.
The closest precursor to Strasburg might be Kerry Wood. In 1998, he reached the majors at 21 and pitched an indelible game, striking out 20 Houston Astros in a complete game one-hitter. He became a sensation. The next March, he was pitching in a spring training game and felt his UCL snap. By May 2000, he was on the brink of his return.
The parallels are not perfect, but the spine of their stories are the same – a flamethrower phenon turned into a sensation and then took a year off recovering from ligament-replacement surgery. The surgery has advanced since Wood underwent his, but many of the subtle obstacles remain the same.
“It took me 20-plus starts probably, 20 starts or so to be like, ‘Ok, I know this thing is going to hold up. I’m recovering. I’m getting a better feel for this. I can throw more of these sliders now. I can do whatever,’ ” Wood said in August. “You get more confident in your elbow. You get more confident in your stuff. By the end of that first year I came back, in August, I felt like this is going to be fine.”
The one pitch Wood had the hardest time recapturing was his slider. That pitch requires the most extension of the arm, because a pitcher must place power behind the ball and pressure on the side at the same time.
“Sometimes when I was throwing my slider, you get around it,” Wood said. “It’s your elbow that’s taking all the pressure on the pitch. You feel a little tentative throwing it. Now you’re kind of guarding it. Now it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing – ‘Aw, I lost my slider.’ Really, it’s just not being able to get out with it or subconsciously thinking that this is going to hurt. It’s been hurting for the last year and a half. I’ve had surgery. I know it feels bad. It’s just that thought process. You’ve done your work. The doctor has done his work. You just got to be able to get out there and throw.”
The adjustment can manifest more as inconsistency than blatant ineffectiveness. When Jordan Zimmermann returned last year, he pitched six one-out, nine-strikeout innings in his second start back. Four starts later, he lasted three innings against the Phillies. Here’s an except from the game story I wrote that night:
“Definitely, I’m frustrated,” Zimmermann said. “Just being able to get out there and get some innings is good, but I don’t want to go out there and just get innings. I want to be able to put up some zeros.”
This - the frustration, the ugly line scores, the skyrocketing ERA - is what happens when a pitcher gets a new elbow and sits out a year. Zimmermann expects excellence from himself. Reality dictates, for now, he will have to settle for something less.
“After going through the surgery and being out a year like he has, your command is just not going to be there,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He’s feeling good. There’s no problems with his elbow. Hitting his spots is something that will come the more he pitches.”
Zimmermann’s most glaring issue surfaced when [Jayson] Werth led off the second, and Zimmermann threw a 3-2 slider. The pitch hardly moved at all, and Werth blasted it to the seats in left field. Zimmermann’s fastball and curve have returned, but not the slider. “That’s the big problem right now,” he said.
When Strasburg climbed a major league mound for the first last year, expectations and the unknown defined that day, too. He shattered any imaginable prediction that night. This time is different – he will be limited to 60 or so pitches, to begin with. It will be difficult for Strasburg to produce even of a fraction of the greatness from his first night in the majors. It would be unfair to expect too much. After what Strasburg did last season, it would be unwise to not be prepared for anything.
FROM THE POST
Stephen Strasburg will return to the majors after a year that changed him, Dave Sheinin writes.
The joy of watching Strasburg carries with it doubts, Boz writes. He has great info from Mike Rizzo about a minor tweak to his delivery.
Michael Morse and Ian Desmond served as catalysts in the Nationals’ 7-2 victory over the Dodgers on Monday.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Lehigh Valley 4, Syracuse 1: Corey Brown went 1 for 2. Brad Meyers allowed two earned runs in 4 2/3 innings on nine hits and a walk, striking out one. Syracuse finished 66-74.
Harrisburg 5, Akron 2: Derek Norris went 3 for 4 with a home run. Tim Pahuta went 2 for 3 with a double. Oliver Perez allowed no runs in four innings on three hits and a walk, striking out three. Harrisburg will begin its playoff series against Richmond on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Harrisburg.
Potomac 8, Kinston 4: Jeff Kobernus went 2 for 3. Zachary Walters went 2 for 4. Potomac will start its playoff series Wednesday at Frederick at 7 p.m.
Hagerstown 9, Lakewood 1: Michael Taylor went 1 for 4 with a double and a walk. Blake Kelso went 2 for 4 with a triple. Hagerstown finished 75-64.
Batavia 4, Auburn 2 (Sunday): Russel Moldenhauer went 3 for 4 with a double. Connor Rowe went 1 for 3 with a home run. Auburn will start its playoff series at Vermont tonight at 7:05.