Stephen Strasburg pledges to return in top form from Tommy John surgery

Stephen Strasburg addressed the media Friday afternoon, hours after it was revealed that he will require Tommy John surgery and will miss the next 12 to 18 months. Strasburg sat next to General Manager Mike Rizzo.
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 1:13 AM

On Saturday, as he flies to Los Angeles, where he will undergo ligament-replacement surgery that will place his nascent, breathtaking career on pause, Stephen Strasburg will pull out a piece of paper and write down everything he is thinking.

"So I don't forget," Strasburg said. "Your mind might get a little jumbled through this experience. I don't know what to expect. I've just got to remember everything I want to focus on so next time I go out there and pitch, I can just keep going like I was this year."

By Friday evening, Strasburg had digested and accepted the reality that shook the Washington Nationals. He will undergo the procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and miss at least one full year, probably the entire 2011 season. He pledged to work "as hard as I possibly can" to return with the same brilliance he exhibited this season.

Chances are, he will. For assurance, he could look only a few lockers to his right in the Nationals clubhouse, to Jordan Zimmermann's stall. Zimmermann underwent Tommy John surgery last August and, after a grueling year of rehab, climbed the mound at Nationals Park on Thursday night and pitched four innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.

"I felt the same when it was done," Zimmermann said. "My delivery was the same. Everything feels normal."

Strasburg said he found solace in "all the guys in the big leagues who are Cy Young contenders, Hall of Famers who have had this surgery." Roughly 85 percent of pitchers who receive the surgery return to full strength, and many - 10 this season - become all-stars. The stunted careers of Ben Sheets, Kerry Wood and Erik Bedard speak for the other 15 percent.

Chris Carpenter, the starter who nearly won the Cy Young last year, opposed Zimmermann at Nationals Park on Thursday night. Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals starter who might be rookie of the year this season, pitched Friday night. Both have had Tommy John surgery.

Another survivor can offer first-hand advice. Strasburg stopped by the Nationals' clubhouse Friday afternoon, and Zimmermann spoke with him.

"I told him it was going be fine," Zimmermann said. "The first two months are going to be a little rough. Once you get through that, it should be a lot easier. You actually throw a ball and go out and hang out with the guys on the field instead of being cooped up inside all day."

The Nationals assumed this season would prepare them for a season in which two-fifths of their rotation was made of homegrown, hard-throwing aces. Eerily, the same day one marked his full recovery from Tommy John, the other learned he would need it. The Nationals could only think, "What if?"

"When you would see Zimmermann and then Strasburg together in spring training, you couldn't help but think, 'They're going to be in there together at some point,' " Manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's still going to happen. It's just going to be another year before it happens."

While the odds favor a full recovery for Strasburg, the surgery strikes the Nationals a brutal blow. Of course, they will not benefit from his dominant pitching for a full season. Strasburg will also accrue service time while on the 60-day disabled list, meaning he will creep one year closer to free agency without throwing a single pitch for the Nationals.

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