Stephen Strasburg as reclusive as ever during long recovery from elbow surgery

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 12:13 AM

He's a grumpy phenom these days, though not for the reasons you might expect. Stephen Strasburg, along with wife Rachel, is living with his mother in San Diego as they wait to move into the house they just bought. With Rachel taking a full load of classes at San Diego State, that leaves Stephen plenty of time alone with a bum right arm and nothing much to do. Oh, and he also just quit chewing tobacco - cold turkey.

So you're going to want to give the one-time jewel of the Washington Nationals' organization some space these days. Not that you'll have much choice. Trying to reach him by phone? Better have some patience. He might not feel much like talking.

"I might have to send up some smoke signals to get hold of him," joked Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, who said last week he had made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Strasburg, just to check in and say hello. "Because he doesn't answer his phone, and I don't know how to text."

An interview request for Strasburg for this story stalled when Strasburg didn't return the calls of a Nationals public relations official.

Strasburg, who underwent season-ending elbow ligament-replacement surgery on Sept. 3, had his cast removed a few days ago, but quality-of-life healing and baseball healing are very different things. At a minimum, Strasburg, 22, is still more than three months from the day when he is permitted to throw a baseball again.

"He needs to chill out and lay low for these four months," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. Kasten hasn't spoken to Strasburg since the surgery either.

Of course, the Nationals' medical staff is in regular contact with Strasburg and his surgeon, Los Angeles-based orthopedist Lewis Yocum, but the team isn't commenting on the minutiae of Strasburg's recovery at this point. Not that there is much to report. Strasburg's rehabilitation has not begun in earnest. He can do some exercising, but he also had a tendon removed from his thigh - to replace the ulnar collateral (elbow) ligament that was torn.

With Strasburg in San Diego, and the Nationals tethered to the East Coast for the remaining two weeks of this season, team officials don't expect to see him again until January for the team's annual offseason caravan, for which Strasburg has already committed to attend.

January is also when Strasburg will hit the four-month mark since his surgery, which, barring any setbacks, should gain him clearance to begin playing catch - starting at a distance of 45 feet and, as the weeks go on, gradually increasing. He likely would begin his throwing program at home in San Diego, then move to Viera, Fla., when the Nationals open their spring training.

By the middle of next summer, Strasburg could start a minor league rehabilitation assignment, with a reasonable shot at returning to the big leagues with the Nationals by the end of the 2011 season. For a pitcher who electrified Washington during the Summer of the Phenom, compiling a 5-3 record and 2.91 ERA in 12 memorable starts for the Nationals, that may feel like a sad eternity.

"We had to tell ourselves [at the time of his surgery] he'd be back in 12 months," Kasten said. "And now it's 11."

In the meantime, Strasburg has nothing but time. He and Rachel recently closed on a new house - something they put off doing prior to the season, since they were married in January and spring training began barely a month later. They are in the process of getting their belongings together for the move.

Strasburg, whose zealous quest for privacy has made family members off-limits for interviews, has also apparently had time to tend to his Facebook page, moving virtually all its elements behind a privacy wall. In other words, no longer will non-friends be able to see that among his "likes" are John McCain and "Kenny Powers from 'Eastbound & Down.' "

There are also signs that his communications freeze-out may finally be thawing. Nationals rookie closer Drew Storen, whose march through the minor leagues this season roughly mirrored Strasburg's, said he exchanged a couple of text messages with him recently.

"Just wanted to check up on him," Storen said. "He said he was doing fine."

When McCatty found out that Strasburg had responded to one of Storen's texts, he got the latter to help him send one from McCatty's own phone.

"Then, finally, [Strasburg] called me the other day when I was on the way to the ballpark. But I missed it, and when I went to call him back, he didn't answer again," McCatty said, smiling and shaking head. "Maybe I should take a hint."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company