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The day an injury put Stephen Strasburg's bright career on hold

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 11:47 PM

Shortly after 4 p.m. on Aug. 21, Stephen Strasburg walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park wearing sunglasses. The future seemed that bright. About three hours later, the Washington Nationals' phenom would make his 12th big league start, as his memorable rookie season wound down. It was a Saturday night in Philadelphia. The two-time defending National League champs were in the other dugout. The stands were packed.

Strasburg's teammates could feel the energy coursing through their clubhouse. Watching the phenom from his own locker, Ian Desmond, the Nationals' rookie shortstop, wore a knowing smile. "I don't usually go making predictions," Desmond said. "But you watch. The sellout crowd, the Phillies - he's going to be locked in. This could be really special."

It was possible, at that point, to dream big: Just 22 years old, Strasburg already was one of the top handful of pitchers in the game - and without question its biggest individual draw - and the Nationals could see their timetable for becoming a playoff contender grow a little shorter each time he took the mound.

Strasburg was still in his street clothes, the sunglasses removed, when he plopped down on a couch in the center of the clubhouse, next to outfielder Michael Morse. Each held an iPhone. They tapped away at the screens furiously - playing each other in a video fishing game, the outcome of which was always the same.

"I never once beat him," Morse said later. "Absolutely not. There was no way."

When it was almost time to go out to the bullpen to begin warming up, Steve McCatty, the Nationals' grizzled pitching coach, began ribbing Strasburg about the notoriously obnoxious Phillies fans, who would line the bullpen on two sides, separated only by a railing and a distance of about 15 feet, and undoubtedly give the kid an earful.

"I was like: 'Hey, big boy, wait until you get out there. Wait until they slice-n-dice you. We'll see how tough you are,' " McCatty recalled.

As Strasburg climbed the bullpen mound and began throwing lightly, the crowds pressed in around him, three-deep in some areas - but it was eerily quiet. Most of the fans held cameras or camera phones up to their faces, too engrossed to perform their duties as intimidators. The only distraction came when a security guard, stationed in a roped-off section directly behind Strasburg, pulled out his own phone and began taking pictures, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez waved him away.

"Nobody said anything," McCatty said. "It was like they really thought they were seeing history."

A few hours later, shortly after 9:30 p.m., it was all over: Strasburg's night and, as it turned out, his season. A good chunk of the Nationals' hopes for 2011. And the notion, unfounded and naïve as it was, that Strasburg was somehow indestructible, somehow different than all the other phenoms who have broken down.

Desmond had been right. Strasburg was locked in that night in Philadelphia, delivering, up until the fateful bottom of the fifth inning, what was perhaps his most dominating performance since his unforgettable June 8 debut, when he electrified Nationals Park by striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates.

And the Phillies' fans lining the bullpen that night had been correct, too. They saw history. They saw the most talented, most hyped, most famous pitching phenom in years throw the final pitch of his rookie season. They saw him grab his arm after delivering an unremarkable change-up, his 53rd pitch of the game, then grimace and gesture to the dugout for help.

They saw him blow out his $15.1 million elbow.

Emerging from his shell

Ten days before the fateful night in Philadelphia, on Aug. 11, a handful of teammates took Drew Storen, the Nationals' rookie closer, out to a sushi restaurant in Alexandria after the game to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Storen invited Strasburg, as well, telling him to bring his wife, Rachel. But no one figured they would show up.

Suddenly, from their table in the front window, the players saw the Strasburgs walking toward the restaurant. The birthday boy seemed blown away.

"I said to the other guys: 'Stras is here! Sweet!' It was just pretty cool," Storen said. "It meant a lot to me, and the other guys there. Honestly, it's a pain for him to go out - he's going to get bothered [by fans and gawkers] anywhere he goes. I know it's not something he enjoys."

By late summer, in fact, Strasburg, shy and untrusting by nature, was beginning to feel more comfortable in the Nationals' clubhouse.

"With all the attention on him, he doesn't really know who to trust, who to joke around with. But as time went on he figured out we're all on his side, and he opened up a little more," Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen said. "He was starting to figure out who he really is as a person."

Storen added: "That's the tragedy of the whole thing. Things were starting to settle down for him. He was getting comfortable in his own skin. There wasn't as much hoopla around him. And then he blows out the elbow."

Outside of winning games and executing pitches, nothing drove Strasburg more than the effort to be unnoticed and unspecial. It was one of the primary missions of his rookie season.

"He was incredibly concerned about the perception [of him] by his teammates," one Nationals official said. "It was important for him not to be seen as someone with any sort of entitlement whatsoever."

At times, that effort created apparent contradictions. He disdained the media, chafing at what he viewed as an unwarranted obsession with him. But the team's media policy for Strasburg, which he endorsed - virtually no one-on-one interviews, and almost no group interviews except those that followed each of his starts - served to set him apart from his teammates, any of whom can be approached at their lockers at any time.

When the team decided to put Strasburg on the disabled list in July following a minor bout of shoulder stiffness, Manager Jim Riggleman got involved in order to convince him to talk to the media.

"The PR guys told me he wasn't comfortable talking to the media," Riggleman said. "So I had a talk with him. I said: 'Look, you have to do this. . . . I don't want to say how your arm feels. I might say something wrong. You know how you feel. You've just got to be more open to talking to the media. They're going to be an ally for you. They're not out to get you.' "

Heavily coached on speaking to the media, Strasburg typically stayed on script, shifting the focus from himself to the team, and beginning many answers with some version of, "Definitely gotta go out there and . . ." His answers rarely revealed much, explicitly or implicitly, about himself.

There was one notable exception. Late at night on Aug. 15, following Strasburg's start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the media pack was backing away from his locker. He had just finished answering a question about Bryce Harper, the 17-year-old Las Vegas native whom the Nationals had taken with the first overall draft pick in June, and who, at that point, had about 48 hours to come to a contract agreement with the Nationals before they lost his rights.

"I don't have any advice for him," said Strasburg, who, like Harper, is a client of agent Scott Boras. "It's his decision."

As the media backed away, thinking Strasburg was finished, he suddenly resumed his answer.

"If he doesn't want to play here, then we don't want him," Strasburg blurted. "That's the bottom line."

That he would say such a thing seemed strange, given the fact that, 12 months earlier, Strasburg himself was in practically the exact same circumstance: coming down to the wire on signing day as the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. Equally strange was the way he said it: as if he had been awaiting an opening in which to trumpet the fact that his loyalties are with the Nationals now, not Team Boras.

The quote caused a minor uproar when it hit the Internet and the morning papers, but in the Nationals' clubhouse, it had the desired effect.

"That was the first time you guys [in the media] saw the real Stephen," Storen said. "That wasn't scripted. That was him. And I can tell you, it went over real big in here. Huge. There were a lot of guys who, the next day, were going [with a fist pump], 'Yeah!' "

The grieving process

On Monday, Aug. 23, Strasburg was called into Riggleman's office at Nationals Park. Inside sat the Nationals' manager, General Manager Mike Rizzo and McCatty. An MRI exam of Strasburg's elbow, taken the day before, had shown what appeared to be a significant tear of his ulnar collateral ligament.

"That was the day, that Monday, when we went through our seven stages of grief," then team president Stan Kasten said.

Behind the closed door, Strasburg would get terrible news: He would almost certainly need reconstructive surgery. He would miss the rest of the 2010 season and most if not all of 2011.

"Very upset. Distraught," Riggleman recalled, when asked Strasburg's reaction. "He was inconsolable for an hour or two there."

The Nationals decided not to reveal the tear, or the likely surgery, until they could schedule a more precise "wet" MRI - which three days later, on Thursday morning, confirmed the tear and the need for surgery.

That same afternoon, the Nationals held a full bells-and-whistles news conference to introduce Harper, with whom they had reached an agreement minutes before the signing deadline - just as they had a year earlier with Strasburg.

Team officials decided to wait until Friday to announce the confirmation of Strasburg's torn ligament and pending surgery, wanting to give Harper an undiluted welcome. But the overlapping of the two cathartic events, Strasburg's injury and Harper's unveiling, made for some uneasy internal negotiations within each member of the braintrust.

"I think we all felt a little bad about being so excited about Bryce, when Stephen was over there suffering," Riggleman said. "This press conference was going out all over the country. I know I tried to downplay my excitement."

That week, and the first few that followed, was a time of soul-searching for the Nationals, with everyone questioning themselves as to whether they could have done something different to prevent Strasburg's blowout, but inevitably reaching the conclusion that they couldn't have.

"I feel terrible," McCatty said recently. "I sit there all the time and beat myself up. But he's going to throw it the way he throws it, and he doesn't hold anything back. I wish to God it hadn't happened. It happened while I was pitching coach. It happened on my watch. I'm going to have to live with that. But I honestly don't think there was anything I could have done to stop it from happening."

Some self-proclaimed experts on pitching mechanics focused on Strasburg's delivery, with one popular theory holding that a certain trait within it - called the "inverted W," for the formation his arms made just before delivering a pitch - was a red flag.

Boras, however, said Strasburg's delivery had been "biometrically assayed" prior to his signing with the Nationals, and had been given a thumbs-up.

Since arriving in Washington, Strasburg has never discussed his pitching mechanics in depth. But an interview he did on the set of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" on April 22, when he was pitching for Class AA Harrisburg, contained a revealing moment. Strasburg was asked about the claims that his mechanics were faulty, and about the "inverted W" specifically.

"I really don't know what an inverted W is," he answered. "I know there's a lot of pitchers in history who don't have perfect mechanics, and end up pitching 20-plus years."

When the studio analysts produced a photo of Strasburg showing the inverted W, Strasburg said, "Well, you know, that's the way I've been throwing my whole life, and I haven't had any injuries."

Into the shadows

The sports world is quick to forget you when you are gone.

In Washington, folks have moved on to the travails of Donovan McNabb and the Redskins.

The hard-core Nationals fans are asking whether second baseman Danny Espinosa is for real, and whether Cuban right-hander Yuniesky Maya - who now occupies the locker that was once Strasburg's - is a legitimate major league pitcher.

In other corners of the baseball world, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, with his legendary 104-mph fastball, is the captivating phenom of the moment.

Strasburg, back home in San Diego following his surgery, went more than a month without speaking publicly, surfacing last week on a conference call with the media, sounding upbeat and uncharacteristically crowing about how he "stirred up" the baseball world during his 21/2 months in Washington.

The ones who still care about Strasburg, who still think about big number 37 and can still feel the way the stadium hummed and buzzed every five days, have their memories.

Mark Lerner is one of them. The Nationals' principal owner figures he has watched the video of Strasburg's dazzling June 8 debut a dozen times.

"Any time I get depressed," Lerner said, "I just put it on and watch."

McCatty has watched it, too, but the experience was not so therapeutic.

"It was amazing. It was electric," he said. "But looking back, I sort of wish he hadn't struck out 14 guys. It was like, 'Now, people are going to remember that.' It set a high bar that really wasn't fair to him."

The Nationals miss their ace, as much for the buzz he brought as for the wins.

"There was a different intensity in the stadium whenever he pitched," Morse said. "National TV. Packed houses. As position players, after he went down, we were like, 'We've got to keep this intensity going.' But you know, it's a long season."

Strasburg gained so much in 2010 - the professional experience, the comfort of fitting into his surroundings - but lost much more. Same goes for the Nationals, who were drawing roughly 12,000 more fans whenever Strasburg started at home.

"It was like getting the appetizer," Storen said, "but not being allowed to eat the entrée."

Even though everyone recognized, or should have, the possibility of an arm breakdown, the intoxicating atmosphere that grew around the phenom, with his preternatural brilliance, somehow created the false notion that Strasburg would be different.

He'll be back, of course, perhaps in September 2011, perhaps in April 2012. He'll return scarred but smarter, like all of those swept up by his story.

But as for The Phenom - that awe-inspiring mixture of tangible, youthful brilliance and mythological possibility - he's gone forever.

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