By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:54 AM
VIERA, FLA. - On Thursday morning, Washington Nationals pitchers formally began spring training with baseball's most common ritual. They played catch. One row of pitchers planted themselves on the foul line of Field 3 while their partners stretched into the outfield, two parallel lines inching further and further apart, aside from one pair that threw off the geometry.
Last spring, Stephen Strasburg stood apart because of what he could do. On Thursday, he stood out because of what he couldn't. Once Strasburg's partner, head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz, stood about 45 feet from the foul line, he remained in place. All around Strasburg, air hissed and mitts popped. His gentle tosses landed in Kuntz's glove with a soft, almost polite thud.
For the rest of the Nationals, the workout represented a beginning. For Strasburg, it served only as a new and different setting for the continuation of the process he began Sept. 3, the day he underwent ligament-replacement surgery on his prized right elbow.
His presence offered good news in the form of no news - this was the plan all along, so long as he suffered no setbacks, to report to spring training with the rest of his teammates. It gave the Nationals their first chance to see Strasburg throw a baseball, but he had been throwing for two weeks in Southern California, where he rehabbed all winter.
"It's just another day," Strasburg said. "It feels good. It feels real good."
Strasburg's most significant milestone happened Jan. 31, with his physical therapist in California. For the first time since the surgery, he threw a baseball. It felt strange at first. Strasburg had been using a heavy medicine ball as part of physical therapy, and the weight of a baseball, something so familiar, felt odd to him.
"It was kind of a weird feeling," Strasburg said. "The ball felt almost too light. For the month before that, I was throwing a two-pound ball into a trampoline. And then you pick up a baseball, you can't really feel it coming out of your hands. The first couple throws were bad. Slowly, I started to get that release point back. It seems like every single time I go out there, my control is coming back a little better. More throws feel good. Hopefully, that keeps going that way."
On Thursday, his session with Kuntz lasted roughly 15 minutes. He lobbed the ball about 20 feet to warm up, and Kuntz moved back to about 45 feet. In the middle of the catch, Strasburg paused to chat with Kuntz and pitching coach Steve McCatty, then resumed. Strasburg understands the monotony of the recovery process, and he made peace with it.
"It's tough," Strasburg said. "But they've been reiterating that fact to me the entire time. I need to pace myself, not rush into things. I'm not going to go out there and do something stupid that could jeopardize how fast I'll be able to come back. I'm just going to do what they tell me to do."
The Nationals have no precise timetable for Strasburg's major league return. Tommy John surgery takes 12 to 18 months to recover from. Without rushing himself, Strasburg could feasibly pitch in the majors this year. He had his Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3 last fall, so if Strasburg is a fast healer - as Jordan Zimmermann was last season - then he could take the mound at Nationals Park in 2011.
"It's obviously a goal," Strasburg said. "But it's out of my control. All I can do is, like I said, is really just go out there and do the throwing program. Execute the schedule. If they feel like I'm ready to go out there by the end of the year and pitch, that's going to be great. It's going to be a decision they're going to have to make."
The Nationals have not ruled out Strasburg pitching this year, McCatty said, but in no way will their decision on when Strasburg returns be informed by the circumstances at the end of the year. The Nationals feel beholden to Strasburg's rehab schedule and how his elbow reacts, nothing more. Caution will rule.
Last year, McCatty often had to ratchet down Zimmermann as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. He plans on keeping close watch on Strasburg, too.
"I've got to sit there and watch him, tell him to take it easy," McCatty said. "He's a special guy. We've got to be smart with this."
Already, Strasburg feels assured about his arm. He derives confidence from his work ethic, the drive that transformed him from a chubby, unheralded high school pitcher into perhaps the greatest pitching prospect ever. He batted away the notion that he might be afraid of what awaits.
"If you saw the work that I put myself through this entire offseason, you'd understand that there's no apprehension about throwing a baseball right now," Strasburg said. "I feel good. My body is in the best shape I could have put it in this offseason."
Strasburg's spring will unfold with a slow, cautious increase in his activity, the crossing of days off the calendar and following a plan.
Once he finished throwing Thursday, Strasburg joined his teammates practicing bunts, fielding ground balls and running from the mound to cover first base. For a while, running drills among his teammates, Strasburg actually blended in.