Stephen Strasburg is back, and maybe better


Stephen Strasburg throws a pitch during his rehab start on Monday for the Hagerstown Suns. Strasburg will move up to Class AAA on Saturday, pitching for Syracuse. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 23, 2011

The seats behind the screen in Hagerstown are so close to home plate that you feel like you are watching a Nationals’ bullpen session in Viera in spring training. You’re as close, 45 feet away, as if you leaned out of a seat in Nationals Park over the bullpen to see a starter warming up before a game.

So you could, for a $10 ticket, be as close to Stephen Strasburg on Monday night on rehab assignment in the minors as you were when you first saw him in ’10 spring training the day Pudge Rodriguez compared his stuff to Nolan Ryan’s or when he fanned 14 men in his big-league debut.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

My two-cent, two-eye verdict: He’s back. Almost all the way back, give or take some rust on his curve and issues with command that he will fix.

Because Strasburg is blunt about baseball, he sees all his current flaws. At times “I’m [too] amped up,” he said. In the bullpen, he often “feels great.” But, in a game, the full polished package remains a project. “There’s little glimpses. They come back. Whether it’s a hitter or two. An inning.”

However, Strasburg’s candor cuts both ways. If you want a bit of a chill down the baseball portion of your spine, this is the money sound bite from Strasburg’s own mouth after fanning six Hickory Crawdads in three innings.

“The curveball is still not where it was,” he said. “All my other pitches are better than they were before, so I’m sure that will be the same.”

Better.

If Strasburg is exaggerating, especially about himself, it’s the first time.

His current program is the equivalent of late March in spring training when pitchers haven’t reached maximum velocity. On Monday on the Nats radar gun, Strasburg hit 99 mph and sat at 94-96. In ’10, he averaged 97.3.

“His tempo is a little off. But at least there’s no doubt that arm is healthy,” said Bob Boone, Nationals assistant GM & VP of player development, who caught the second most games ever.

A.J. Burnett, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Chris Carpenter and plenty of other pitchers have actually come back throwing faster after the same elbow surgery that Strasburg had. Burnett averaged 94.9 mph the season before he was hurt, then 95.6 his first full season back. Johnson went from 92.4 to 95.0 and Hudson from 90.3 to 91.2 at age 35, as fast as he threw at 28.

The Nats only have to look at Jordan Zimmermann, who had the same elbow ligament replacement surgery. His slider is now better, his fastball up a tick. Before Tommy John surgery, his ERA was 4.63, then 4.94 late last year in seven Nationals starts when he was brilliant one game, then scuffling the next, like Strasburg, who got knocked around in one of his four rehab starts.

But this year Zimmermann’s ERA has fallen to 3.11.

Strasburg’s and Zimmermann’s recoveries have paralleled at every stage, both precisely on the track set by Dr. Lewis Yocum for a procedure that has an 85 to 92 percent success rate. Though some fans don’t seem to grasp it, Strasburg is now several months past the “will the elbow hold up” stage. Any pitcher can get hurt. But let your breath out. As far as Tommy John surgery goes, Strasburg made it. One Nats exec said, “You don’t throw 99 if it ain’t fixed.”

His elbow, with a transplant ligament wrapped in a figure eight through holes drilled in two bones, has now achieved the famous New Elbow status. The question isn’t whether he’ll come back. It’s whether, once the rust is off and the polish on, will he be almost as good, just as good or better?

“Early on, you kind of get those [bad] thoughts in your head,” Strasburg said. “Once I started pitching in games, there was no apprehension. . . .You’ve got to trust the work. I’ve worked my butt off this whole time.”

Strasmas II may only be two weeks away. No rush job. That’s just normal. Josh Johnson, for example, blew his elbow out in ’07 and was back starting for the Marlins in the majors 371 days later, then had two huge comeback years. However, Tommy John surgery doesn’t inoculate the rest of your body. Johnson’s been sidelined since with back and shoulder issues.

After two more starts in the minors, probably Aug. 27 and Sept. 1, the minor league regular season ends Sept. 5. The Nats want Strasburg to get 50 innings of work. He’s at 9 1 / 3. So he’ll need five more starts after Sept. 5.

Perhaps on Sept. 6, 380 days after his injury, he’ll start in Nats Park. A rainout, elbow stiffness, a cat crossing his path, could change that guess. If the Nats preferred it, he might start in a minor league playoff game after Sept. 5. Buy tickets at your peril. But I can look at a calendar, count five days between starts and know Sept. 6, 11th and 16th are all home games.

When Strasburg returns, don’t expect the consistent domination of last summer. He may be erratic start-to-start until 2012. But that’s not what matters. “The stuff is there, the arm is healthy and that’s all we care about,” said GM Mike Rizzo. “He needs to find a good rhythm. He’ll knock some rust off every time he pitches. After a year off, you have to get the feel back.”

Fans have feelings, too, but probably different ones than last summer. Then, Strasburg was an admirable, shielded, breath-taking phenomenon. Now, he’s a 23-year-old unassuming young man who’s seen his career pass before his eyes after only a dozen starts in the major leagues.

It’s a hard heart that hasn’t internalized some part of Strasburg’s lonely rehabilitation. How many times has he wondered, no matter how much medical reassurance he got, “Will my elbow hold up? Will I make it back?” Many have adopted his worry, and his risks, as part of our own life calendar. It’s not logical perhaps. But when he steps to the mound again, you’ll hear it.

On Monday, there were empty seats in Hagerstown, even in that front row. “Hagerstown is getting used to me. I think it’s probably time to move on,” said Strasburg, making fun of himself. “The fans here . . . just to hear them wishing me luck and congratulating me so far in the recovery. It just makes me excited to get back in D.C. and pitch in front of Nats fans again.”

Safe to say that probably goes both ways.

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