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Nationals spring training: Sleepless nights yield to giddiness

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; D01

VIERA, FLA.

Washington Nationals rookie reliever Cole Kimball, who tore up the minors last year, then torched the Arizona Fall League, woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday.

"I looked at the clock and said, 'Really - 4 a.m.? Oh, come on. There's no way I'll be able to get back to sleep,' " said the 25-year-old Kimball.

So, on the first day of spring training, Kimball was in the Nats' locker room at Space Coast Stadium at 5 a.m., four hours before the first meeting.

When Bobby Henley, the Nats' spring training coordinator, arrived at his usual ultra-early hour of 5:15 a.m., he expected to be utterly alone.

Then, behind him, Kimball said, "Hello." Luckily, Henley's heart is healthy. "Son, you're here a little early, aren't you?" said Henley.

You can't be too early when it's time for spring training to begin.

"Pitchers and catchers report" are among the most magical words in sport. They hit everybody differently. But their impact strikes everyone harder than they expect, no matter how many times they've had that first-day-of-school tingle of anticipation. It's been less than four months since the World Series, but it's felt like a drug withdrawal. Winter has intervened and left us battered, every sense longing for what baseball symbolizes: sun, warm breezes, green beneath our feet and clear blue above our heads.

Everybody has different giddy symptoms on Day One. Old coaches can't stop telling stories, as if they'd been slammed in solitary and muzzled for months. "All winter my wife tells me, 'Our TV has more channels than just MLB Network,' " said Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty. "But that's all I seem to watch."

Soon, McCatty is off on a free-association romp, discussing the pitching mechanics of Walter Johnson, 100 years ago. "He didn't finish his delivery. His right leg never came around. How do you throw 100 mph doing that?" he says.

"God said, 'You're going to throw 100.' That's how he did it," says GM Mike Rizzo.

Even I couldn't sleep Wednesday night, still out on a hotel balcony at midnight, looking up at a full moon high in a cloudless warm sky. I thought I was a little nuts. February baseball - sacrifice bunts, covering first base - shouldn't mean very much. Yet, generation after generation, it still does.

These days are pure heaven for the true fans. An oceanfront room in Cocoa Beach or Melbourne, a 25-minute daily drive from Viera, can go for less than $100. Players don't just sign their name; they talk to you. For free, you can stand behind a gauze-covered fence that is just eight feet behind the Nats' pitchers as they throw full-bore for 15 minutes. Perfect clear view.

"This is their chance," said Manager Jim Riggleman. "You can see what kind of stuff each one of them has just as well as if you stood behind them on the mound in a game."

In part, the delight of pre-exhibition-game baseball is that unexpected moments of electricity arrive at random. When Bryce Harper gets here and takes batting practice, it may be an "I was there at the beginning" moment.

The first big jolt of juice, however, has already arrived. As the Nats gathered for a brief pre-practice meeting, one player stood apart: Stephen Strasburg, the 22-year-old who's the centerpiece of their future.

Just 10 yards from his teammates, he played catch. His 45-foot tosses traveled on a hard line, his familiar fluid mechanics still in place. The sight was almost a shock, even though Strasburg has been tossing for two weeks. As for those, including the Nats, who wondered what progress he'd made since an elbow ligament replacement on Sept. 3, they had their answer.

What you do know is that "89 percent full recovery" statistic looks a little less pollyannaish when you actually see Strasburg toss a ball as fast as most high school players will ever throw one. It leaps from his hand like it's alive.

"Stephen Strasburg doesn't really know what 'throw at 50 percent' means," said McCatty. "We're constantly going to have to tell him, 'Cut back. Take your time.' "

"Good. That'll make everybody feel better,' said Ryan Zimmerman. "Now be really patient. There's no chance he's going to sniff the field until later than people think. They'll be careful with him. And they should be."

Strasburg might pitch in late September. But don't bet on it. The recovery prognosis for Tommy John surgery is 12 to 18 months. Jordan Zimmermann made it back to the majors in barely more than 12 months last September. But that was a best-case recovery. With any setback at all, even an inconsequential one, Strasburg may not pitch in the majors until April 2012. And, like Zimmermann this season, he'll be limited to 150-160 innings in his first full year back on the mound.

Let that cheerful prospect be sufficient for now. Zimmermann, who seems fully recovered, poured in fastballs and sharp curves to catcher Pudge Rodriguez in his bullpen session. "It's time to go," said Zimmermann. "It's a long process. But, right now, I'm as good as ever. It's great to be able to do everything anybody else does and it's going to be fun to do it."

As human theater, Strasburg's story is still scary. But in strict baseball terms, the correct operating assumption is that, in 365 days, he'll be right where Zimmermann is now: completely recovered. Since he's already five months into his rehab, that 89 percent recovery rate has already gone up.

Don't fantasize, but "some pitchers come back stronger," said McCatty. He adds that he's seen pitchers in his long baseball life with slightly better fastballs and curves than Strasburg's, and change-ups as good though none better, "but I've never seen nobody with command of three pitches that good.

"Most guys are just as good [after Tommy John surgery]. Some lose a little velocity. The question isn't how hard Stephen throws when he comes back. It's how well he pitches. He has the feel of pitching. So he'll be just fine."

In fact, once healed, the replacement ligament, because it is wound in a figure-eight multiple times, may be the least likely thing in Strasburg's whole body to break due to pitching. Zimmermann's already gotten there.

The rest of spring training will be its usual unique mix of casual delight and delicious boredom. But it won't quite be Day One, with all the clubhouse smacks of greeting and the bizarre sight of catchers coming out to slap hands with their pitchers at the end of their first bullpen session as if they had just saved a game in the ninth inning.

Of course, there may be exceptions. The late-blooming Kimball, a converted starter who touches 98 mph, had a 2.17 ERA in the minors last year, then posted a 0.75 ERA in the elite Arizona Fall League. His energy is already a blend of myth and mirth to the Nats. "Oh, I figured he'd be the one who'd show up before dawn," said Craig Stammen. "He's an ox."

When will he arrive Friday? "In Little League, I couldn't sleep before a game," Kimball said. "I'd be in uniform at 7 a.m. watching cartoons."

"I'll be there at 5:15 a.m., same as always," said Henley. "But I'll scan the room tomorrow to make sure nobody's behind me."

boswellt@washpost.com

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