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Excitement about Strasburg’s return cracks ballplayers’ cynical armor

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Ballplayers master the appearance of cynicism. The years in the minors, the certainty of eventual injury, the grind of a career that can last thousands of games almost ensures it. Except on the occasions when they drop their armor entirely because the stakes are too high, the excitement too genuine.

For weeks in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, the same subject has kept coming up: the night, the game and the moment that Stephen Strasburg returns. And now, rain willing, it is scheduled for Tuesday night at Nationals Park. 

“We’ve been talking out there for a month, oh, yeah,” said the Nats reliever Tyler Clippard. “We’re reliving last season, all his starts, game-by-game. Or we’ll give a summary to the new guys of what it’s like, what they’re about to see — the electricity in the park every time he pitches.

“He’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen,” said Clippard who’s been a pro nine years and got the win in the All-Star Game this year. “His mound presence, stuff, command, it might be naive for me to say it, but that’s what I think — the best,” Clippard said. “If he can stay on the mound a full career, it’s going to be something to watch.”

There’s that word. You knew it was coming: If.

With Strasburg, you feel compelled to watch him, eyes wide open, glued to his gifts, not wanting to miss anything, even as something in you wants to protect yourself — or him — by squinting or even turning away.

As is almost always the case when Strasburg pitches a symbolic game, rain is predicted. “It’s crazy. Stras and rain,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Strasmas means a rain delay, a cancellation or at least drizzle, as though the heavens haven’t decided yet whether, or how long, to allow his performance to last.

Some athletes perform under a lifelong black cloud. Others seem to have their own personal sun. The sky over Strasburg, who returns 368 days after elbow-ligament replacement surgery, always seems ambivalent. 

“After the rain, the sun breaks through, right?” said Jayson Werth.

That’s not just a Washington wish. All of baseball has been as giddy as the Nats’ bullpen in recent weeks. Restraint? Not this century’s flavor.

 “Not to take anything away from him, but let it play out,” Werth said. “We know he has Hall of Fame stuff, but he’s being called one of the greatest ever before he even gets to pitch one full season.

“He’s awesome but he’s young. Give him some time and space. It’s a tough place to be,” Werth said. “Let him pitch a few years and then judge.”

Actually, that’s Strasburg’s own position. At 23, he sits on the stool before his locker like he is trying to be invisible, head down, bearded. He might as well wear a sign: “I haven’t done too much yet. Don’t embarrass me by treating me like a star before I have earned it.”

 Last year, vets immediately appreciated that reserve in such a highly paid phenomenon. But time passes fast for pros. And humility on the mound isn’t a virtue. Dwight Gooden, to whom Manager Davey Johnson often compares Strasburg, already had seasons of 17-9, 24-4, 17-6, 15-7 and won a world title before he was Strasburg’s current age. Names such as Wood, Prior, Valenzuela, Saberhagen and Clemens prove that 2012, when his arm should regain full strength, is not too soon for Strasburg to enter his prime.            

“I watched his last bullpen,” Livan Hernadez said. “All his pitches are there. I think he’s ready. Just don’t try to do too much.”

Strasburg has used his lost year to refine himself as a pitcher. But he’s always been a learner.

“When I had him in Beijing on the Olympic team [in 2008], he threw 93-95 [mph] and I said he could be an ace then, because he had such command of both his fastball and curve right at the knees,” Johnson said. “The next time I saw him, he had a sinker. Then he showed up [in 2010] with a great new change-up. Last year, he learned situations to use the top of the strike zone.”

Now, it’s his delivery that’s been modified. “He’s calmed his motion down,” Rizzo said. “He doesn’t go as high with his glove. Now, it only goes about as high as the [hand with the] ball.

“He still does that scarecrow thing,” Rizzo said.

That scarecrow thing is the both-elbows-up posture just as his front foot hits the ground that current mechanics gurus love to condemn as a shoulder killer. See, you can’t escape it — the rain clouds, the sun fighting through. When you see Strasburg, it’s theater that would be called overwrought on a stage. Will he be on the Clemens, Verlander, Gooden arc or Kerry Wood?

The impact of an intact Strasburg on the Nats would probably be even greater than most fans assume. The Dodgers, for example, are a poor 49-61 team unless young lefty Clayton Kershaw, a Strasburg comparable, pitches. Then they are 19-10 in his starts and he’s 17-5. One true ace can turn 90 losses into .500.

Adding a Strasburg also subtracts your worst starter from the rotation. The Nats are 10-19 in starts by Tom Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang. With Hernandez 8-21. That’s why statistical analysis says a Strasburg may be worth five or six more wins, but in practice, it can sometimes be 10.

“When somebody has pitched one-third of a season and he is the unquestioned ace of your staff, if you can’t get excited about him coming back, what are you going to get excited about?” said Johnson, laughing.

So far, at every stage, Strasburg has had a model recovery. The one-year cycle back to the mound is standard operating procedure. “I did the same thing — July to the next late-July,” said outfielder Rick Ankiel, the former pitcher who says he has “dual citizenship.”

The long-term future that every true fan wishes for Strasburg is a mystery, denser than any rain cloud. But for now, enjoy that he’s back. Maybe rusty. Maybe, like Jordan Zimmermann in ’10, erratic, start to start.

But it’s beginning again. Not hype but actual drama that sometimes, like August 21, 2010, seems considerably too real.

“We’re not in a pennant race this year,” said Clippard. “But when he pitches, it’s going to feel like one.” 

© The Washington Post Company