Strasburg keeps his eye on the ball

"I've worked so hard so far," said Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg. "I'm going to keep that going. If you work, you're going to get rewarded."
"I've worked so hard so far," said Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg. "I'm going to keep that going. If you work, you're going to get rewarded." (Nelvin C. Cepeda)

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By Adam Kilgore
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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.


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© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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