But the rain held off long enough for Strasburg, 23, to take the mound roughly on time, and the hardy souls who decided to brave the elements to witness the return of the pitcher who captivated Washington in the summer of 2010 were rewarded with a performance that recalled those heady days — a five-inning, two-hit gem against the Los Angeles Dodgers that answered one of the last remaining questions about his health:
Could the post-surgical version of Strasburg summon the same preternatural combination of power and precision against big league hitters as the pre-surgical version?
Pitching with a transplanted tendon where his right ulnar collateral ligament used to be — and with a pair of screws holding it in place — Strasburg overpowered the Dodgers over his 56 pitches, departing at that early juncture not because of rain or poor performance, but because the Nationals are resolved to baby their prized pitcher through the season’s final month in the name of a healthy, dominating future.
“It’s a big milestone I’ve accomplished here,” Strasburg said. “Ever since I went under the knife that was my goal — to come back and pitch in the big leagues in 2011, and now . . . it’s all about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever in 2012.”
Strasburg left with a lead, but it evaporated in the hands of the Nationals’ bullpen, leading to a 7-3 loss that was delayed 31 minutes by rain in the seventh inning.
If you didn’t know any better — as Strasburg mowed down batters, striking out four, allowing only two hits and no walks and reaching as high as 99 mph with his fastball — you would have never known anything bad had happened to him a year ago. In some ways, it was as if he had never left.
Strasburg’s first big league pitch of 2011 was delivered at 7:10 p.m., a 96-mph fastball to Dodgers leadoff hitter Dee Gordon, who fouled it back. At that moment, vast sections of empty seats dotted the stands. How many fans had stayed away because of the dire forecast? How many, suddenly aware the game was going to be played as scheduled, were frantically making their way to the stadium?
On Strasburg’s fourth pitch, a 97-mph heater, Gordon lined a double to left-center field, and though Strasburg retired the next three hitters, the crowd — announced as 29,092, reflecting tickets sold, although the turnstile count was almost certainly less than half that — seemed almost disappointed that none of the outs were strikeouts.