Stephen Strasburg jogged out of the dugout and walked up the Nationals Park mound a few minutes after 7 p.m. Tuesday, kicked at the dirt in front of the rubber and picked up the pearl-white baseball waiting there for him. It had been 382 days since the last time he pitched on a major league field, since the Washington Nationals had witnessed first-hand the pitcher charged with delivering a baseball winner to their city, since he threw a change-up and shook his prized right arm.
After he underwent Tommy John surgery, rebuilt his right elbow, transformed his body, relearned how to throw, plowed through the minor leagues and waited through a final few anxious moments, Strasburg returned to the major leagues with five scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 7-3 Nationals loss. He was as good as ever — Strasburg left only one of his 12 starts last year having allowed no runs.
The Nationals’ bullpen and an unusual managing decision by Johnson deprived Strasburg a chance at the win. Doug Slaten replaced Strasburg in the sixth inning and allowed hits to two of the three batters he faced. Johnson turned to Brad Peacock, who had joined the Nationals’ roster that afternoon. He had not wanted to use Peacock, but with a storm in the forecast, Johnson was also wary of warming him up and then not using him.
Peacock, a 24-year-old and one of the Nationals’ top starting prospects, began his major league career pitching from the stretch with two on, one out, Kemp at the plate and Strasburg’s win on the line. “Welcome to the big leagues, kid,” Johnson said.
Peacock made a nasty first pitch, a 95-mph fastball with bite on the outside corner. Kemp followed that with a groundball that ate up Ian Desmond on a high hop. Peacock allowed a walk and two more hits, and the Dodgers tied the score at 3.
The Dodgers won the game in the eighth, when Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas roped a two-run double off Nationals reliever Henry Rodriguez. Three other Nationals — left-handed reliever Atahualpa Severino, outfielder Corey Brown and infielder Stephen Lombardozzi, a Columbia native — made their major league debuts as well.
The Nationals struck out 17 times, but they also managed to bring the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth against Dodgers closer Javy Guerra. But Michael Morse struck out looking and Brown flied to left field.
Last June, Strasburg compared his debut to his wedding night — he remembered the first pitch, and everything else was a blur. Over the past year, his body and his mind-set have matured. After Tuesday night, he remembered everything.
“The game seemed like it was in slow motion out there,” Strasburg said. “From what it felt like in the debut last year, I kind of felt like I had been through it before. I was definitely a lot more relaxed out there.”
Tuesday night was more methodical reintroduction than the grand unveiling of his major league debut in 2010. The Nationals sold 29,092 tickets, but only enough fans to fill half the stadium braved gray, threatening skies. Strasburg displayed the same electric combination of pitches that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 and baseball’s most scintillating attraction last year. He showed the same greatness that made the frayed ligament in his right elbow such a painful — but, the record may now state, temporary — blow.
“He was special,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It was nice seeing him back. It was just fun watching him. It was just like he hadn’t been out.”
Strasburg allowed two hits and no walks while striking out four, all swinging. He threw 56 pitches, 40 of them strikes. He also reached base when Dodgers starter Ted Lilly threw away his sacrifice bunt, and he eventually scored on a groundout by Jayson Werth.
In the fifth, the small crowd sensed Strasburg was about to finish with an 0-2 count on Justin Sellers. Strasburg threw his 56th pitch 97 miles per hour — one tick faster than his first pitch — and Sellers popped up to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in foul territory. Strasburg walked off the mound and accepted a handshake from Johnson.
Strasburg zipped his fastball at an average between 96 and 97 mph and topped out at 99. He complemented his fastball with a diving change-up and a biting slider. Command, typically, is last to come for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann experienced that last year.
“That is the norm for Tommy John,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Ask yourself: Is this guy normal?”
Strasburg threw a first-pitch strike to 14 of 17 hitters. He threw multiple balls to four batters and reached one three-ball count. He showed off only minor differences in mechanics — his front arm does not jut upward as steeply — but an altered approach. He wants to rely more on control than pure power.
“I’ve come to the realization that I don’t need to throw 100 to get guys out,” Strasburg said. “I’m not trying to go out there and light up the radar gun every time.”
Strasburg threw one pitch faster than 97 miles per hour, but he had a start that would fit among the best of last year’s dozen major league performances.
“He looked as good this year, or maybe even better, as far as sheer dominance, being in control of what he wanted to do, as I saw last year,” McCatty said. “And I saw pretty good stuff.”
Strasburg fired the first pitch of his comeback start at 7:10 p.m., a 96-mph fastball to rookie Dee Gordon. With his fourth pitch, he left a 97-mph fastball at the letters, and Gordon lined to left-center field for a double. He retired the next three batters in order.
The Strasburg that Nationals fans fell for last season returned in full in the second inning. He threw his first change-up — the pitch that he tore his UCL throwing Aug. 21, 2010, in Philadelphia — on a 1-2 count to Andre Ethier. The ball bounced in front of the plate, and Ethier still was fooled and swung over it for strike three. That was Strasburg’s first strikeout.
The first four strikeouts of Strasburg’s night all came when batters whiffed. After he struck out Ethier, he fired a 99-mph fastball — the fastest pitch he threw — past Aaron Miles for strike three. “If you want to get in [such a] situation and you want to turn it up a notch,” McCatty said, “he has that ability.”
Strasburg struck out the Dodgers’ two best hitters in the fourth inning. Matt Kemp whiffed on another change-up that just about disappeared. Then he victimized Ethier again, this time with 97-mph heat.
The ominous weather forecast kept fans away in droves. Before the game, Johnson told Strasburg he may scratch him. “I wasn’t going to let it change my focus,” Strasburg said.
The lack of buzz may have suited Strasburg, who prefers to compete without the trappings of celebrity. It certainly did not bother him.
“He doesn’t care about all this stuff,” one Nationals player said, motioning toward a clubhouse full of reporters before the game. “He’s not nervous. He just wants to get on the mound and pitch.”