VIERA, Fla. — The process of making Stephen Strasburg whole again started Sept. 3, the day a surgeon sliced open the pitcher’s right elbow and inserted a replacement ulnar collateral ligament. A cast immobilized his right arm for two weeks. He endured a gauntlet of physical therapy, six days on, one day off each week. He threw a baseball again for the first time Jan. 31, and since then he has worked his way up to long toss at roughly 120 feet. He exerted himself enough to lose more than 15 pounds and sculpt his abdominals into a chiseled six-pack.
The hard part starts now.
Tuesday evening, Strasburg accompanied his teammates as they flew north to Washington. He will sign autographs and meet fans alongside them at Nationals Park on Wednesday as part of the team’s promotional NatsFest. And then, while the rest of the Washington Nationals embark on the games that count, Strasburg will fly back here and continue his rehab in relative seclusion.
“It’s really hard for me watching everybody pack up and leave,” Strasburg said Monday afternoon. “At the same time, I knew going into this that was going to be the situation. I’m going to have tunnel vision down here. I’m going to focus on the task at hand and get back there as fast as I can.”
The milestones will keep ticking off. Sometime soon, according to plan, he will climb a mound. This summer, most likely in late July or early August, Strasburg will join a Nationals minor league affiliate and begin climbing the system three or four innings at a time.
Until then, Strasburg will stay here, working mostly by himself. The same effort he’s been putting forth will occur in new, dimmer circumstances. The Florida heat will grow ever stickier and ever more oppressive, the surroundings that will make him feel ever more alone. “This,” a Nationals trainer told him, “is what’s going to make you nuts.”
Last year, Jordan Zimmermann stayed in Viera to rehab when the Nationals split for the season. The trouble was not the workload; that stayed basically the same. The circumstances changed.
“I was just down here by myself, no one else here, with the heat,” Zimmermann said. “To watch every game on TV is hard. You just wish you were on the team.
“It’s not going to be very fun. He’s strong enough mentally that he’ll be able to get through it.”
So Strasburg, baseball’s main attraction last summer, will be reduced to fandom for most of this season. Even after his astronomical rise as a sports star, Strasburg knows what it is to be a sports fan. He adores the basketball team at San Diego State, his alma mater, and attended several of their games while rehabbing in Southern California this winter.
Before the Aztecs played Connecticut in the NCAA tournament regional semifinal, he spelled out why he was worried: San Diego State had lost only twice all year, both times to BYU and Jimmer Fredette. UConn’s Kemba Walker reminded him of Fredette, but he also thought U-Conn. possessed a stronger supporting cast.
And he was right. Now, Strasburg will have to shift his focus to a team he is part of but does not play for.
“It’s tough, because it’s hard to watch the games on TV and not be there to support the guys,” Strasburg said. “It’s been hard this spring watching the games, because you feel like you’re not a part of the club. I kind of knew what to expect. I went into it knowing that I just have to suck it up. I know eventually I’m going to be rewarded.”
Boredom is an enemy of the Tommy John surgery rehab process. As Zimmermann learned last year, it is about to increase for Strasburg. Once his teammates deserted Viera last year, Zimmermann attempted to take up a hobby.
“Try to golf every single day,” Zimmermann said. “That’s about it. When it gets to be 100 degrees, it’s not even fun golfing.”
And his advice now for Strasburg?
“Try to find something to keep yourself busy, I guess,” Zimmermann said. “Golf or . . . I mean, there’s not much to do down here but golf. I guess the biggest thing would be just to try to keep yourself busy and stay sane.”
Strasburg has already come far in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but he still has much further to go. It has been 208 days since the surgery, many of them packed with a mixture of arduous work and monotony. It will take 157 more days until one year has passed, the absolute soonest he could conceivably pitch in the major leagues.
Strasburg may or may not reach the majors this season. His recovery so far has been perfect, one Nationals official said before knocking on a wall. If Strasburg continues on the same progression and pace, if he stays close to the schedule Zimmermann blazed last year, he could reappear sometime in September.
None of that occupies Strasburg. He will keep his head down — tunnel vision — do the work, and count down the days until he can get the hell out of Florida.
“Everybody said block everything out, just focus on it one day at a time,” Strasburg said. “Don’t really worry about the day-to-day progression. Just look at it as one-month increments. Where was I one month ago? Am I better now? Yes.”