HAGERSTOWN, Md. — More than 6,000 fans and 65 media members squeezed into creaky, old Municipal Stadium on Sunday afternoon to see if Stephen Strasburg still had the lightning in his $15 million right arm. As he reared back and threw his first meaningful pitch in nearly 12 months, a hush came over the building, and as it exploded into his catcher’s glove, there went up a half-roar, half-gasp.
The verdict, rendered over the course of 31 pitches in a Class A minor league game: Strasburg, the Washington Nationals’ one-time phenom, may not be all the way back — at least not to the extent we came to appreciate during the course of his mesmerizing 2010 rookie season.
In the bigger picture, this was less a historic performance than another milestone on Strasburg’s long, grueling path back to the major leagues — a path that began with reconstructive elbow surgery last Sept. 3, when a tendon from his left thigh was transplanted into his right elbow, replacing the ligament that had blown out on a single pitch two weeks earlier.
For some five months after the surgery, Strasburg, 23, couldn’t so much as pick up a baseball. The remaining milestones, notched in virtual solitude in the sweltering heat and humidity at the Nationals’ minor league headquarters in eastern Florida, were measured in months. He played catch for the first time in February. He pitched off a mound for the first time in May. He faced hitters for the first time in July.
The return of Strasburg, even in a decidedly less-than-major-league setting, also meant the return of “Strasmas” — the phenomenon that built up around his starts every five days last summer, and that peaked on June 8, the night he made his sensational big league debut at Nationals Park.
Pitching in the uniform of the Hagerstown Suns — the Nationals’ affiliate in the Class A South Atlantic League — Strasburg faced eight batters Sunday and struck out half of them, relying heavily on a fastball that clocked in at 96 to 98 mph on the radar guns of scouts behind home plate, within the range he regularly hit in 2010, when he was Washington’s most electrifying performer and baseball’s biggest box-office draw.
The Suns’ ticket office sold out of grandstand seats within three days of the announcement that Strasburg would begin his rehabilitation assignment here — though the actual attendance fell short of the stadium record set in 1983 on the day the San Diego Chicken showed up. The media contingent Sunday was more than twice as big as the one that showed up on April 15 for the home debut of 18-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, who replaced Strasburg this season as the Nationals’ top phenom and fan obsession.
At 1:15 p.m., Strasburg was dropped off in front of the Suns’ offices on East Memorial Boulevard by his wife, Rachel. She would return, with family members, in time for the first pitch, seated in the third row with a camera on her lap, one behind Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner.
At 3:27 p.m., he emerged from the Suns’ clubhouse to begin his pregame stretching routine, his every step captured by dozens of television and still cameras.
And at 4:06 p.m., he inhaled deeply atop the pitcher’s mound and let fly a hissing fastball: Strike one. He would throw his first eight pitches for strikes, with 25 strikes total among his 31 pitches.
“I was super-excited to be back out there,” Strasburg said. “I’m right where I want to be.”
Within those 31 pitches in Sunday’s rehabilitation start, there were hints of his old power and his old brilliance. You could see the outline of the old Strasburg, and you could imagine a day, not so far off, when he might pack Nationals Park again.
But he also gave up a home run to Jacob Realmuto, a 20-year-old catcher for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, plus a pair of well-struck singles. He couldn’t make it through his prescribed two-inning start, getting removed with two outs in the second inning because of a pitch limit.
To the naked eye, his sturdy body and his smooth mechanics looked the same as they did in 2010, although having spent much of the past year strengthening his “core” muscles, he said both his body and his mechanics were better.
“Before, I just wasn’t in as good shape,” he said following the Suns’ 7-5 loss. “I think the biggest reason I broke down was I got tired. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for a full season.”
He will start again in five days, most likely with the Nationals’ affiliate in Woodbridge or in Harrisburg, Pa., and again five days after that, and five days after that — the internalized rhythms of a starting pitcher’s life. Sometime in early September, if all goes well, he will ascend the mound at Nationals Park again.
Strasburg will be back in town, and so, too, will Strasmas.