The Washington Times - March 30, 2011, 09:57PM

Stephen Strasburg was back inside the home clubhouse at Nationals Park Wednesday afternoon, one day before what very well could have been the first Opening Day start of the young phenom’s career.


It’s not, of course. Livan Hernandez will take the ball for his ninth Opening Day start instead, tying him with Roy Halladay for the most among active pitchers.

But watching Strasburg on Wednesday, you could be forgiven for wondering if this will be the last Nationals Opening Day without him on the mound for the remainder of his time in a Washington uniform.

“I wish I was here (tomorrow),” Strasburg said before heading out to right field to get in his routine throwing and participating in the Nationals fanfest event.

“But I’m hoping to have plenty more in the long run. It’s definitely going to be tough (to not be a part of Opening Day), but I know the work I’m putting in right now is going to help me be there next Opening Day — hopefully pitching in it too.”

Strasburg, of course, will head back to Florida on Thursday to continue the arduous process of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. As Nationals manager Jim Riggleman pointed out on Wednesday, he is now seven months out from the surgery and the goal is within sight.

“I really think I’m going to be better (than I was before),” Strasburg said.

A scary thought for opposing hitters, no doubt.

But first Strasburg has to progress past flat ground throwing sessions from about 120-feet. He said today that he expects to be throwing off a mound in a few weeks to a month and while all parties involved would obviously rather have the right-hander in Washington than in Florida, they’re not going to push Strasburg one ounce over what they feel his elbow ligament can withstand.

“As an athlete, you kind of want to push it and see how it’ll feel but they’re on me like hawks so I can’t be doing that stuff,” Strasburg said. “I can pretty much feel (pitching coach Steve McCatty) breathing on me when I’m throwing. They’re watching the way the ball’s coming out of my hand. If it’s a little too hot, they tell me to tone it down a little.”

The hard part for Strasburg comes when he gets on that plane tomorrow. When he goes back to rehabbing on his own, away from his teammates and focuses on the small progress he can see over each week and month.

If all goes according to plan, this will be the last time the Nationals open a season without him for the foreseeable future.

When the idea was posed to Hernandez after his final spring training start — that no matter how well he pitches this season and if he were to return to the team next year he would most likely not make the Opening Day start the veteran looked at it pragmatically.

“This one is special,” Hernandez said, “because I don’t know if it’s going to be the last one. Sometimes you play golf, and birdie doesn’t win the hole.”