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.