A painful end to Strasburg's debut

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg talks to the media about his injury during a press conference before a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, Aug. 27, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg talks to the media about his injury during a press conference before a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, Aug. 27, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010

For months, anyone who would peer into Stephen Strasburg's future, wondering aloud what heights the Washington Nationals' phenom might reach, what pitching records he might break, would use the same cautious qualifier: Strasburg, they would say, could be one of the all-time greats . . . could be a Hall-of-Famer . . . could win 300 games . . . if he stays healthy.

But he did not stay healthy. Strasburg, the same pitcher who was a vision of youthful vitality and athletic genius in the first few glimpses of him on the Nationals Park mound this summer, will have his right elbow sliced open by a surgeon's knife in the next few days. He won't pitch again in 2010. He is unlikely to pitch in 2011.

He may still do all the things that were predicted for him. He may still be the one who fills the stadium, lifts the woeful Nationals franchise to prominence, puts Washington in the World Series. But that vision just got a little fainter.

Strasburg, 22, has had a torn ulnar collateral ligament diagnosed. He will leave Saturday for Southern California, where he will be seen a day or two later by noted orthopedist Lewis Yocum, who is expected to perform the operation - involving the replacement of the torn ligament with one from a cadaver or another part of Strasburg's own body. It is commonly known as Tommy John surgery, for the pitcher who first underwent the procedure in 1974.

"This is a minor setback," Strasburg said late Friday afternoon. "But in the grand scheme of things, it's just a blip on the radar screen."

And so, the story of Washington's Summer of the Phenom can be told in two pitches, the first and the last.

The first pitch came at 7:05 p.m. on June 8, under a pristine sky, in Strasburg's hotly anticipated major league debut at Nationals Park. It was met by the near-unison clicking of cameras. It was a fastball, 97 mph. After smacking into the catcher's glove, the ball was handed off to a man in a suit and white gloves, then whisked away for posterity. Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates that night. A pitcher has never looked more powerful, or his career brighter.

The last pitch came on Aug. 21 at 9:40 p.m., at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. It was a change-up, 90 mph. As soon as Strasburg threw it, his face broke into a grimace: Pain. He looked at his arm. He shook his hand. He beckoned the team trainer to the mound. He was finished - for the night and, as it turns out, the season. Probably next season, too. Recovery time from this procedure is generally 12 to 18 months.

Although the news feels devastating to the thousands of fans who had come to build their television-viewing or ticket-buying routines around Strasburg's every-fifth-day schedule, the long-term prognosis is not terrible. Elbow blowouts are commonplace among pitchers, and ligament-replacement surgery has been perfected to the point where the Nationals can feel reasonably confident of Strasburg's eventually returning as good as new.

"What we're dealing with here is something that's very manageable," said Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent. "I've had so many clients who pitched until they're 40 have issues like this in their early 20s. I've had a number of clients who feel fine and then, boom, [the elbow] goes, and then they have [the surgery] and they come back and they're fine. As a matter of fact, in the majority of cases they're better."

Everyone in baseball knew this was a possibility. The Nationals certainly knew it when they chose Strasburg, arguably the greatest college pitcher of all-time, with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, then gave him a record-setting contract of $15.1 million. They knew it when they sent him out for a minor league apprenticeship - a month in Class AA, a month in Class AAA - with strict pitch counts and innings limits governing his usage.

"Stephen doesn't want any funeral type of thing," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who charted the conservative course for Strasburg's development, said on ESPN 980. "Tommy John surgery isn't open-heart surgery. We're going to see him a year from today. He's gonna be bigger and better than ever. He's focused on the surgery and the rehabilitation and getting back here. . . . There's no wake here."

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