After 12 long months, Stephen Strasburg is back at Nats Park

September 5, 2011

Every few days this season, Steve McCatty would get a text message with a picture attached, and before the Washington Nationals’ pitching coach could even open it, he knew what was in the picture: It would be Stephen Strasburg’s grinning face — at a distance of exactly one arm’s length away — with a big old bass flopping on the end of a fishing line next to his ear.

This was Strasburg’s life for much of the past year, and that, for the most part, was the extent of anyone’s interaction with him in Washington. Strasburg was an image on a cellphone screen, or a random magazine page you flipped to by accident. He was a fleeting thought in our heads: Wonder how he’s doing down there in Florida? Remember the night he struck out 14 in his big league debut? Will he ever be that good again? Will baseball?

And then, time seemed to zoom from a crawl to a gallop, and suddenly Strasburg was on a minor league mound — orbiting around Washington like a satellite, from Hagerstown, Md., to Woodbridge, Va., to Syracuse, N.Y., to Harrisburg, Pa. — and now he is ready to touch down again where it all began: On the mound at Nationals Park.

Strasburg, 23, will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, and we will begin to find the answers to the many questions in our minds, beginning with these: How has the past year, a year spent largely away from the spotlight, changed him? And how has it changed us?

All we know for certain are the facts: After a brilliant start to his big league career in the summer of 2010, Strasburg threw his final pitch last year on Aug. 21 in Philadelphia, tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. On Sept. 3, he had reconstructive surgery to replace the ligament with a tendon taken from his thigh. For five months, he couldn’t so much as a pick up a baseball. It was nearly nine months before he threw a pitch from a mound.

“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” Strasburg said last month, following one of the six minor league rehabilitation starts he made, each of them offering glimpses of the pitcher he was before. “If you let the highs and lows get to you, you’re never going to get through it. I realized that early on. You have to look at it one month at a time, instead of one day at a time.”

The adulation and the whirlwind of 2010 — when Strasburg went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 12 big league starts, filled stadiums across the eastern half of the United States, appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the cover of Sports Illustrated and became the most talked-about pitcher in baseball — was replaced by the most suffocating sort of monotony.

Once the Nationals headed north at the end of spring training, Strasburg was for the most part alone in Viera, Fla., surrounded by only a handful of other rehabbing pitchers; some support staff; his wife, Rachel; and his dog, Bentley. He would work out each morning, adhering religiously to the rehab schedule drawn up for him by the team’s medical personnel, then have the rest of the day free — which isn’t necessarily a welcome situation, when it’s 95 degrees and humid by noon in a particularly quiet and still corner of Florida.

He saw practically every movie at Rave Cinema 16 on The Avenue in Viera, knew every undulation on every green at Duran Golf Club, was on a first-name basis with every bass in the pond behind his apartment building — most of them immortalized and transmitted to McCatty via Strasburg’s cellphone camera.

“He got pretty good at fishing,” said Nationals pitcher Garrett Mock, a Texan who frequently fished with Strasburg while rehabbing in Viera himself. “He likes freshwater better than salt-water, but a couple of times I took him down to the inlet. One time he didn’t catch anything, but we saw tons of manatees. At first, he was like, ‘Dude, what is that thing?’ This one must have been 600 pounds. I said, ‘That is a sea cow.’ ”

Fishing, in fact, became a metaphor for Strasburg’s life, and his outlook on it. It wasn’t something he did growing up outside of San Diego, but he quickly fell in with its rhythm — the patience it required, the slow build-up for a few brief moments of exertion and thrill. Whether by cause or effect, the fishing mind-set began to inform Strasburg’s personality, according to people who have witnessed the change in him.

“He has a thicker crust on him, and an inner calm,” said Spin Williams, the Nationals’ minor league pitching coordinator. “It’s not easy being down there by yourself and going though that grind, in that heat, and knowing the big picture is way down the road.”

People began to notice the change in Strasburg this spring, when the injury reduced him to a mere spectator. “It was like he’d been humbled by the injury,” one team official said.

Asked last month to describe the hardest part of sitting out a year, Strasburg said, “Just not really feeling like you’re doing what you’re paid to do. The hardest part as a competitor is when you can’t compete. You don’t really know what your role is.”

By the time he got to Hagerstown on Aug. 7 for his first rehab start, the change was striking. After that game, as he exited the clubhouse, he was engulfed by autograph seekers. But rather than push his way through, or sign indiscriminately for an hour, as he might have a year ago, he took charge of the situation, saying he would sign for children only, then cutting off the session after about 15 minutes.

One woman in the crowd hurled expletives at him, and a man blurted: “I hope you blow out your elbow again.” But rather than snap back, Strasburg ignored them and kept on signing for the kids.

All the greatness Strasburg brought with him last year appears to be intact. His fastball topped out at 99 mph during his rehab stint. After some initial stumbles, his curveball has its old bite and precision. Scouts have noticed his stride to the plate appears to be slightly shorter, but the Nationals say they haven’t altered his mechanics in any significant way. That shorter stride, they say, could just be a function of Strasburg’s needing time to fully trust his body again.

“I think he’s more controlled in his delivery now,” Williams said. “As someone who has studied pitching his whole career, I still get goosebumps every time he throws.”

Strasburg’s ornery streak on the mound is there, too. In his penultimate rehab start, for Class AAA Syracuse, Strasburg was working on a perfect game in the fifth inning when a Rochester Red Wings batter tried to bunt his way on base, only to bunt it foul. With his next pitch, Strasburg drilled the guy in the ribs — perfect game be damned.

The only things that might hold Strasburg back are the same entities that have been holding him back for 12 months now: the Nationals, and the process. Even though he is returning to the big leagues, in a sense completing his rehab, the rebuilding of Stephen Strasburg continues. He will be limited to about 60 pitches on Tuesday night and about 25 to 30 innings in the majors this season. Even next year, he is likely to be shut down in August. Not until 2013 will we see him completely unfettered.

“I want to be a horse in the rotation someday,” Strasburg told MASN, one of two media outlets to get one-on-one interviews with Strasburg this summer. (The other, the MLB Network, is, like MASN, a television rightsholder.) “I want to be able to throw 240 innings in a season and be that guy that, [when] you need me to go out in the eighth, ninth inning [or] pitch on three days’ rest, I’m that guy.”

But that day is still a ways away. For now, we must be satisfied with the visceral thrill of Strasburg, in smaller doses: the zip on that fastball, the wretched swings of baffled hitters, the electric buzz pulsing through the stands, the digital “99s” and “100s” going up on the radar-gun readout on the scoreboard.

Every pitch is precious. Every inning is a gift. Each completed start is a milestone, the culmination of the tedious preparation that went into it, like another big old bass dangling from the end of your line.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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