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Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg continues rehab from surgery

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 12:33 AM

IN SAN DIEGO Stephen Strasburg, the pitcher whose brilliance last summer grabbed baseball by the throat, has not grabbed a baseball in months. Some 150 days have passed since Strasburg picked up a ball, an act he performed without thought almost daily for most of his life, the thing that gave him joy and made him a millionaire.

Sometimes, for a drill that strengthens his fingertips without too stringently testing the new ligament in his right elbow, Strasburg flips a yellow softball in the air. That is the closest he has allowed himself to come to touching a baseball since Aug. 21, the day he threw the final pitch of his rookie season. He cannot remember the last time he went so long.

"I'm saving picking up a baseball for until I start throwing," Strasburg said. "I'm at a yellow softball right now. Hopefully, I'll have a baseball soon."

Within two or three weeks, according to the plan set out by Strasburg's doctors, he will begin tossing a ball again, a significant milepost in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Until then, the second chapter of his baseball life will continue its tedious churn. Physical therapy on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Running. Weightlifting. One day off per week.

Greatness, for Strasburg, has always been less than about the realization of genius than the culmination of work piled atop more work. His ascension from a slightly chubby high schooler to baseball's most scintillating attraction, the architect of the most electric moment in Washington Nationals history, began only after he found and honed his capacity to become better and better incrementally, until he was better than them all.

The distress and doubt he felt when he learned he would require ligament-replacement surgery in early September, then, have ceded to the reassurance of a plan. He finds comfort in the fact that what made him will also remake him.

Working his way back

"I'm definitely at peace with it," Strasburg said Saturday morning, sitting under a tent at the 5K run he created to benefit the San Diego State baseball team. "At first, I was real shell-shocked. I didn't know what was going to happen. Now, I'm getting pretty comfortable with the idea of working back. It feels good. There's no doubt in my mind. I've worked so hard so far. I'm going to keep that going. If you work, you're going to get rewarded."

In less than a month, Nationals players will start trickling into Viera, Fla., for spring training. Only a year ago, Strasburg was still a curiosity whose throwing sessions in the bullpen existed as news-making events. He will stand apart again, but for a different reason. While his teammates prepare for the season, rifling pitches at full speed, Strasburg will play light toss in adherence to his strict schedule.

Strasburg will rebuild his arm strength, remaining in Viera with the Nationals' rehab coordinators once the team heads north for the season. Around mid-August, he is expected to begin minor league rehab appearances. There is a chance he could reappear in the majors for one or two starts in the season's waning days, but most likely he'll throw his next major league pitch in 2012.

"This is going to be tough," said Tony Gwynn, Strasburg's coach at San Diego State. "He loves what he does. The fact that he's not going to pitch at all this year is going to drive him bonkers. But I think he realizes what's at stake."

For now, Strasburg focuses only on the present. He receives physical therapy three times a week in Orange County, Calif., much of which concentrates on his remade elbow. Lewis Yocum, the physician who performed Strasburg's surgery Sept. 3, replaced his ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from his thigh. The ligament must be strengthened and made more flexible before he can throw.

As he bides his time, Strasburg has enhanced the rest of his body. Shortly after the new year, he called Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty and told him, "I'm in the best shape of my life." He bet McCatty that, when he arrived at spring training, he would have a six-pack of abdominal muscles.

The workouts have helped Strasburg's legs and shoulders in particular. He generates his 100-mph velocity with abnormally thick legs, which are now stronger than ever. In college, he could squat 235 pounds for three sets of 15 repetitions. Now he squats 315 pounds for the same duration.

While not pitching, Strasburg realized he possessed a deficiency common among young pitchers. The muscles at the front of his right shoulder are exceptionally strong, but the muscles in the back, which help the arm decelerate during a pitch, are comparatively weak. When he was scratched from a start in late July, it was because he felt a tweak in those decelerating muscles.

No one is happy Strasburg will miss at least one year of competition. "It's not a blessing in disguise," McCatty said.

The recovery process, though, presents Strasburg an opportunity to strengthen his shoulder, something he would not have been afforded without Tommy John surgery. At 22, the work could prevent long-term harm to his rotator cuff or labrum, the most debilitating injury a pitcher can suffer.

Fighting the tedium

The importance and progress hardly detract from the tedium. His physical trainer sometimes has to restrain Strasburg in workouts to keep him from pushing his reconstructed elbow too hard. "It's the same every day," Strasburg said. "There are times when you're like, 'Come on, let's do something new.' "

Strasburg has found means to cull some joy from the monotony. On his flight to San Diego in September, he scrawled his feelings in a notebook. He planned to use the paper as a time capsule of sorts; he wanted to remember his emotions a year later. Instead, he turned the notebook into a journal. He keeps meticulous track of his workouts, his diet, his thoughts. When he flips back to November, he marvels at his progress.

"I'm really starting from scratch," Strasburg said. "I really see the progression."

In between workouts, Strasburg has also had more spare time in his first professional offseason. He received a letter from an 8-year-old in Mechanicsville, Va., who had also endured a debilitating arm injury. In sloppy handwriting, he told Strasburg he was praying for him and suggested he play video games to pass the time. Recalling the letter, Strasburg laughed.

Busy in his spare time

He's resisted video games. In an effort to work toward a degree, he took two public administration classes at San Diego State. SDSU, PA 460 and PA 497, a thesis course. He wrote his thesis on the effect new stadiums have on neighborhoods, focusing his research on Nationals Park. He poured through pored over facts and figures, including the hiring process of construction workers and the history of the Anacostia waterfront.

Strasburg has stayed busy since the fall semester concluded. He bought a house. He attends San Diego State basketball games. He told McCatty he visited Big Bear Mountain in California on a skiing and snowboarding trip. "Please, God, tell me you were not doing that," McCatty said. Strasburg assured him he had tagged along only to hang out with friends.

He also created the Stephen Strasburg 5K Fun Run & Walk, an event that drew more than 1,500 people to the San Diego State campus on Saturday. Strasburg was the emcee, ran the race, signed autographs and posed for pictures. All the proceeds went to the university's baseball team, which has felt the crunch of California state budget shortfalls. He wants to expand the event next year to include more charities and also involve the Nationals.

Throughout the event, during which he ran alongside family members and his Yorkshire Terrier, Bentley, Strasburg beamed. Close friends, after speaking with him, find him to be in high spirits. Faced with the most significant challenge of his career, he is in a good place.

Two distinct dates

Strasburg's rookie season can be distilled into two dates - his debut on June 8 and his injury on Aug. 21, the most hopeful day since baseball returned to Washington and the most angst-ridden. This winter, in Michigan, McCatty offers pitching lessons for young kids. They all want to talk about Strasburg's maiden performance.

"I remember the first game," McCatty said. "And I do remember that one pitch, that flinch."

Strasburg no longer dwells on the injury. He chases the feeling his best moments brought, sustained by the belief that only work and time separate him from feeling it once more.

"I focus on the times where I pitched really, really well," he said. "I try to remember what I was thinking.

"I just can't wait to go there and do it all over again."

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