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Can Stephen Strasburg rediscover his dominant 2019 form? ‘I really don’t know.’

Stephen Strasburg is surrounded by unknowns as the season approaches. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The certainties for Stephen Strasburg are these: What lies ahead is the third season since he led the National League in innings, was the World Series MVP and signed a seven-year, $245 million contract. He has taken to a major league mound just seven times since.

That’s it. That’s all we know. That’s all he knows. The questions spill forward from there. Is that same pitcher locked somewhere in that same body? Will those abilities ever appear again?

“I really don’t know,” Strasburg said. “I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out what the future will look like, and I don’t have a crystal ball.”

The pitcher Strasburg had become by 2019 is worth $35 million per season. The pitcher Strasburg is now is … what, exactly? He is an enormous part of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, their past success and their current and future payroll. He has been limited to 26⅔ innings over the past two seasons, each of which ended with surgery — the first for carpal tunnel syndrome, the second for thoracic outlet syndrome. His body has been through enough that it’s reasonable to believe it will never be what it once was.

It’s so much that fans tend to throw up their hands and say, “Again?!” And yet, you think he wants this fate?

“He cares as much or more than anybody that we’ve ever had,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He wants to play. His body betrayed him. These aren’t phantom injuries. These aren’t fake injuries. These are real things that doctors have cut on.”

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So, then, where do the Nationals and Strasburg go from here? When he underwent Tommy John surgery to replace ligaments in his elbow in 2010 — was it really a dozen years ago? — there was a clear road map back. Thoracic outlet syndrome — which can be one of a number of disorders that involve compressed nerves or blood vessels between the collarbone and the first rib — is murkier.

“It’s more of a serious injury than Tommy John in the sense that it’s not like necessarily down to the science,” Strasburg said. Like other pitchers, he began throwing 12 weeks after his elbow surgery. But what he discovered over the course of spring training is that recovering from thoracic outlet surgery requires retraining and strengthening his shoulder and arm in a way he had never experienced. If Tommy John recovery was a straight line, this has been more like charting an earthquake on a seismograph.

“I can go throw a bullpen twice a week and feel good, but that’s really not what this job requires,” he said. “So it’s really getting to that next step of being able to build up the endurance and strength to do it every five days and throw 100 pitches a game.”

That makes it some combination of maddening and ominous. Whenever Strasburg returns to the majors — it won’t be for Opening Day against the New York Mets on Thursday — he and the club want him to be full-go, back for good. But there are no certainties.

“You really don’t know,” Strasburg said.

“We’re unsure, too,” Rizzo said.

Optimism here has to come from the fact that the Strasburg of 2019 wasn’t the Strasburg of 2012, as a pitcher or a person.

“He had to adjust once in his career already,” Rizzo said, “from the guy who struck out 14 against the Pirates throwing 100 [in his debut] to a guy who was pitching at 94 but had that curve, that change and that command. That’s a guy who can learn to still win baseball games with the stuff that he has. Whatever his velocity, with that change-up and that breaking ball and the command of his, he can figure out how to get hitters out.”

Strasburg’s average fastball in 2019 was 94.1 mph. It was, to that point, the lowest of his career. It was, arguably, his best season. He is an example to his younger teammates that the stuff you have as a 23-year-old might not be the stuff you have as a 33-year-old. That’s fine. There’s no survival without adjustment.

“He’s someone I love sitting next to in the dugout and picking his brain,” right-hander Erick Fedde said. “Sometimes maybe you have to initiate the conversation a little. He’s a little to himself. But if you can get past the — oh, what’s the right word? — the presence that is Stephen Strasburg, just the quality of player he is, he’s amazing. He’s always been a guy that I’ve leaned on.”

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The Nationals are built to lean on him, even as he hasn’t been there to lean on. In an era in which starting pitchers are being asked to do less than ever before, Rizzo still believes in building his roster from the rotation up. It might be the era of the “opener.” The Nationals do not do openers. It’s why their reboot can’t be characterized as a full-on teardown, because a team that’s paying Strasburg and Patrick Corbin $58 million to start games and eat innings in 2022 isn’t a bare-bones operation.

“I think the starting pitchers drive the day,” Rizzo said. “The teams that can run out a consistent starter that gives you a chance to win each and every day, those are the teams that succeed in the postseason.”

If this rejuvenation is to work to its potential, Strasburg — signed through 2026 — must be part of the present and the future. Maybe it’s with a 95-mph fastball. More likely, it’s with something less than that.

“You go with what you have out there,” Strasburg said. “You’ve got to give it everything you’ve got. That’s all you can do. If it is what I was in the past, great. If it’s not, then I’ll deal with it.”

He’s also adamant that there’s a lesson here. “Everybody’s dealt different cards,” he said. The important part is how he responds. Few can see it, but right now that’s with work — blind work, because he doesn’t know what the pitcher on the other side will look like.

“It’s easy to dwell on all of the setbacks and the lows in this game, but it’s important to focus on how you’re going to respond to them,” he said. “That’s something that’s bigger than baseball. I want to pass down that message to my kids.”

There’s something powerful in that. We know what Stephen Strasburg was. We have no idea what he will be. That’s unsettling to a front office, to a fan base and to the pitcher himself.

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