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For Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, bad news travels like a 103-mph fastball

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 12:57 AM

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Seeing Stephen Strasburg on the dais Friday, sans goatee and uniform, orange flat-top, telling us he is ready to move on and start rehab right after Tommy John surgery, was seeing him for what he still is: a kid in a bit of denial, too young, headstrong and socially awkward to let his guard down and actually tell us how shell-shocked and disappointed he is.

Yes, 10 pitchers at the 2010 All-Star Game had undergone Tommy John surgery. Yes, one in nine major league pitchers has had the surgery and returned since 2008. But for at least 24 hours, it's okay to mourn the combustion of a supernova's season - and the brief spike in interest and attendance for a club that once tried to pawn off its new ballpark as its No. 1 free agent.

That's all done now, at least until possibly 2012.

Stephen Strasburg very well might emerge from this okay, but that doesn't mean Friday was anything but crushing.

It's natural to feel disappointment today because Strasburg didn't just bring credibility to a starved-for-attention D.C. sports scene; he brought the rare good news amid other Washington sports stories that led "SportsCenter." "Haynesworth a No-Show" and "Arenas Sentenced on Gun Charge" were suddenly superseded by this mythical fireballer from San Diego, whose 103-mph fastballs were a blur and whose change-ups made good hitters buckle and whiff.

Maybe that was part of the problem: The intense and immediate need for a messiah to make a dreadful team matter again. Beware, Wizards fans: Herein lies the danger of attaching all your hope to a kid with promise.

"I worry about the build-up that he had," Peter Gammons, the former ESPN analyst now with the MLB Network, said by telephone on Friday afternoon. "That there was so much of a buzz. My guess is he put a great deal more pressure on himself than he needed to - to get to the big leagues, to fulfill the hype. I mean, his first start was a national story; it was on national TV. That's not normal. That is a burden, I think, and a pressure that may be beyond a 22-year-old kid who has grown very fast in a short period of time."

Let's be clear: Nationals President Stan Kasten and General Manager Mike Rizzo don't deserve any second-guessing for how delicately and carefully they handled Strasburg's one-year ascension to the majors; if anything, their treating the kid like fragile China becomes even more justified.

(Maybe the "suck it up" method of dealing with young flamethrowers isn't so wise, huh, Dibbs?)

After the kid with the golden gun, the guy I feel bad for today is Ryan Zimmerman. Zim is the head of the welcoming committee, fitting the big names and the bonus babies with their first Nationals jerseys at whatever introductory news conference is going on each summer in Southeast Washington.

Last year, it was Strasburg; Thursday it was 17-year-old Bryce Harper, the brash prodigy equal parts 'tude and talent.

With Strasburg on the mend and Harper at least a couple years from the majors, Zimmerman is back where he's always been the past five seasons: holding down the fort on a bad baseball team.

If anyone beyond Strasburg and his inner circle recognized what Friday's news meant, surely it was Zimmerman.

"Obviously, it'd be better if he was pitching," he said before Friday night's game against the Cardinals. "I think it is what it is. There's nothing you can do about it. You've got to move on. We have a bunch of young pitchers. He was obviously a pretty good one. He'll be back in 12 months or whatever it is and be ready to go. You don't want that to happen to anyone, but it happens to a lot of pitchers. Pitchers come back and are better or the same as they were. It's part of being a pitcher nowadays, I guess."

That's what he has to say. But like the rest of us, Zimmerman knows Strasburg was so much more than a pretty good young pitcher. He was boffo box office, the sole reason the Nationals became a national story this past June. What other rookie right-hander was asked to read David Letterman's Top 10 list two months ago?

And make no mistake: Tommy John surgery isn't a legal performance-enhancer; if it were, warped parents would be having their kids' elbows operated on in Williamsport. It's a bad thing for a young phenom. It's a bad thing for a franchise that just stopped mattering again until 2012.

It's okay, Zim. You don't have to pretend this didn't hurt.

That's for 22-year-olds who still don't want to admit their dream rookie season ended with a medical diagnosis, instead of another standing-room-only strikeout.

wisem@washpost.com

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