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

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.

Every decision the Nationals made since they drafted Strasburg in June of last year came with the notion of him topping their rotation, uninterrupted, for years to come. Every decision the Nationals make starting now and through the offseason will be tinged with the knowledge that Strasburg will probably not throw a major league pitch until April 2012.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo remained resolute in the face of Strasburg's impending surgery. He said he would not let the injury to Strasburg affect his plan to build a winning team in 2011, including the potential signing of first baseman Adam Dunn.

He also remained confident the Nationals will be able to build their rotation next year and then around Strasburg and Zimmermann.

"With Stephen and Zim, we've said all along that we need to come up with a real rotation," Rizzo said. "We're certainly going to attack and get our rotation in place via free agency, trades or developing our own. That's always our primary goal. It's been our primary goal, and we're certainly not going to stop looking for the ultimate starting rotation. That's the core of the ballclub.

"A year goes fast. A year from now, this guy next to me will be toeing the rubber and we'll have two-fifths of our rotation, of what we had planned, on the field at the same time. We're going to be ready to take off from there."

Strasburg had already began the same process. He has never had surgery on his arm before, and he had to cope with not only his own fragility but the wide-ranging consequences of it. "He probably feels like he let down everyone in the world," center field Nyjer Morgan said.

When Strasburg received the news Thursday night, it stunned him - he felt good enough to play catch at that moment. Eventually, he embraced his new challenge. Initially, confusion and anger enveloped him.

"It didn't take a matter of minutes," Strasburg said. "It took, definitely, a few hours. I've got great support all around me. They reminded me of everything I should be thankful for. They put everything in perspective for me. The big thing, the bottom line, this is a game. I'm very blessed to play this game for a living."

Strasburg hopes he might step back on a major league mound at the tail end of the 2011 season, more likely the start of 2012. On Friday, he still hadn't separated himself from the final moment of his rookie year.

He remembers he was rolling in Philadelphia on Aug. 21, the night he threw his last pitch. The Nationals were pounding the Phillies, the reigning National League champs, and Strasburg was at the height of powers, leading the way.

"That was when I had that feeling," Strasburg said. "That was a packed house with some rowdy fans, and I didn't even feel like they were there. I was just so locked in, and everything was working.

"Sure enough, something happened. But that's something to build on."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company