The sky over Nationals Park at first pitch Tuesday night was an ominous gray instead of a brilliant blue, and the stands were only about a quarter full, instead of packed to the rafters. If this was Strasmas II it bore almost no resemblance to the original, save for the solitary No. 37 standing in the middle of the diamond, and the brilliance in his right arm.
The long-awaited return of Stephen Strasburg to the major leagues, one year and three days after his exhilarating 2010 rookie season was cut short by elbow surgery, lacked much of the buzz and electricity of his memorable June 8, 2010 debut. But that lack had less to do with Strasburg himself, or any sense of fan fatigue over him, than with the weather — namely, a foreboding forecast that, at one point, showed a 100 percent chance of rain at game time.
But the rain held off long enough for Strasburg, 23, to take the mound roughly on time, and the hardy souls who decided to brave the elements to witness the return of the pitcher who captivated Washington in the summer of 2010 were rewarded with a performance that recalled those heady days — a five-inning, two-hit gem against the Los Angeles Dodgers that answered one of the last remaining questions about his health:
Could the post-surgical version of Strasburg summon the same preternatural combination of power and precision against big league hitters as the pre-surgical version?
Pitching with a transplanted tendon where his right ulnar collateral ligament used to be — and with a pair of screws holding it in place — Strasburg overpowered the Dodgers over his 56 pitches, departing at that early juncture not because of rain or poor performance, but because the Nationals are resolved to baby their prized pitcher through the season’s final month in the name of a healthy, dominating future.
“It’s a big milestone I’ve accomplished here,” Strasburg said. “Ever since I went under the knife that was my goal — to come back and pitch in the big leagues in 2011, and now . . . it’s all about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever in 2012.”
Strasburg left with a lead, but it evaporated in the hands of the Nationals’ bullpen, leading to a 7-3 loss that was delayed 31 minutes by rain in the seventh inning.
If you didn’t know any better — as Strasburg mowed down batters, striking out four, allowing only two hits and no walks and reaching as high as 99 mph with his fastball — you would have never known anything bad had happened to him a year ago. In some ways, it was as if he had never left.
Strasburg’s first big league pitch of 2011 was delivered at 7:10 p.m., a 96-mph fastball to Dodgers leadoff hitter Dee Gordon, who fouled it back. At that moment, vast sections of empty seats dotted the stands. How many fans had stayed away because of the dire forecast? How many, suddenly aware the game was going to be played as scheduled, were frantically making their way to the stadium?
On Strasburg’s fourth pitch, a 97-mph heater, Gordon lined a double to left-center field, and though Strasburg retired the next three hitters, the crowd — announced as 29,092, reflecting tickets sold, although the turnstile count was almost certainly less than half that — seemed almost disappointed that none of the outs were strikeouts.
But the strikeouts would come: two in the second inning, two more in the fourth. The fans began to feed on Strasburg’s power. By the fifth inning, and sensing it was his last, the crowd rose to its feet as Strasburg, with two outs, delivered a 1-2 pitch to Dodgers second baseman Justin Sellers. It was a 97-mph fastball — one tick faster than his first pitch of the game — and Sellers popped it up meekly. When Strasburg jogged back to the Nationals’ dugout, his teammates engulfed him with handshakes and high-fives.
“He was special. It was nice seeing him back,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “. . . He hasn’t changed a lick.”
It was impossible not to compare this debut to the one he made on June 8, 2010 — which became known locally as “Strasmas” — when Strasburg, then 21, debuted at Nationals Park. That was the night he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, the game that redefined what a pitcher at the height of his powers could do, the performance that vaulted him from a phenom to a phenomenon.
On Tuesday night, Strasburg looked a little thinner and a little shaggier than the thick-legged, buzz-cut 21-year-old who dazzled all last summer. By all accounts, he is stronger through his core — the result of months of working out following his surgery, before he was allowed to resume throwing — and stronger mentally from the toll of his year-long rehabilitation.
“I’m still on a mission here,” he said. “I wanted to get stronger mentally and physically through this process. I didn’t waste a minute waiting for this moment to come, because I knew it was going to come sooner or later.”
Almost until the very moment Strasburg delivered his first pitch, the status of the game itself was in question, due to the slow-moving weather system over the region. It rained most of the day, and a rainout was enough of a possibility that Johnson informed Strasburg at his locker at 4 p.m. of contingency plans.
Strasburg emerged from the Nationals’ dugout at 6:37 p.m., just as the grounds crew was folding up the protective tarp that had covered the infield for much of the afternoon. The sky was a roiling mix of grays, and only a few thousand fans were inside the bowl of the stadium. Three Nationals public relations officials held back a dozen cameramen there to immortalize Strasburg’s first steps onto the field.
Up until that moment, no one — including the Nationals’ brain trust — knew definitively the answers to the pressing questions: Would there be a game? And if so, would Strasburg start it — or might they scratch him at the last minute over concerns about the field conditions?
Evidently, many who held tickets for Strasmas II harbored those doubts, or maybe they doubted if the Strasburg of 2011 could possibly approach the mastery of the Strasburg of 2010. But after the sky cleared and the phenom ascended the mound, those who had come to Nationals Park were glad they did.