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Stephen Strasburg returns, and the Nationals hold their breath

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Washington Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg lives up to the hype Tuesday night by setting a team record with 14 strikeouts in a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; 11:23 PM

On Tuesday night, barring another last-minute twist, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg will restart his magnificent rookie season. He will walk from the bullpen to the dugout, camera lights flashing. "Seven-Nation Army" will blare on the Nationals Park loudspeakers. The Florida Marlins leadoff hitter will dig into the box, the unmistakable buzz Strasburg brings hovering over everything. He will be back.

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And then Strasburg will reach his arm back, step forward and hurl his first pitch, an act that once brought only joy and now provides at least a speck of angst.

"He may throw like that for 20 years," Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "He may have a problem. I don't know."

Each of Strasburg's actions comes under harsh scrutiny, and his trip to the disabled list because of shoulder inflammation only intensified the glare on the most essential piece of his star: his pitching mechanics. Strasburg's first stint on the DL also forced the Nationals to face a difficult question: Is Strasburg doing something that has the potential to cause a long-term injury?

One major league pitching coach watched his delivery and spotted a similarity to one of baseball's most infamous flameouts. One expert studied Strasburg's motion with four sports scientists and concluded he faced relatively small risk. One major league team doctor called Strasburg's bout with inflammation "a red flag."

The only certainty is that Strasburg's first health scare as a professional provided the Nationals an unsettling reminder that their most valuable player relies on the most violent, unpredictable act in sports.

"What are perfect mechanics?" McCatty said. "I don't know what they are. It's an unnatural motion for your arm. I think time will tell. I can't take Strasburg and say, 'You've got to get this move down.' That's just how I feel. Everybody's mechanics are a little bit different."

As Strasburg neared his return, the Nationals played down the severity of his ailment. ("I hesitate to even call it an injury," Manager Jim Riggleman said.) Strasburg said the soreness in his shoulder disappeared two days after he was unable to make his start.

Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams called Strasburg's ailment a "100-inning tired arm" that is "typical" of most players in their first year out of college. The only thing atypical, Williams said, is Strasburg's circumstances: Rather than anonymously being shut down for a week in the minors like dozens of first-year hurlers, his scratched start and subsequent recovery was covered exhaustively.

"You'll see a strong Strasburg come out in his next start," Williams said. "He'll pitch as good or better as he did before he felt this."

But if Strasburg experiences the inflammation again, it would be cause for alarm. Strasburg also fought inflammation once in college, and if it surfaces again, it would lend credence to the possibility that his soreness lies in his motion.

"The real concern is what I call an upside-down arm action," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said on MLB Network Radio on SIRIUS XM after Strasburg went on the disabled list. "I am not wishing this guy bad, but for him to be having problems right now when they are really, really watching him, what are they going to see when they are trying to get 220 innings from him? He does something with his arm action that is difficult, in my mind, to pitch a whole lot of innings on."


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