On the one-year anniversary of the day that Stephen Strasburg had his precious right elbow sliced open and a new ulnar collateral ligament put in place, he stood on the mound in the Nationals’ bullpen effortlessly doing the same thing any other starting pitcher does three days before his next start.
And this start will be unlike any other the right-hander has made in the last 365 days. It will be a re-debut of sorts, as Strasburg, the man who made one of the most anticipated debuts in major league history in June of 2010, makes his first post-Tommy John major league start Tuesday evening at Nationals Park. It will be one year and three days after the surgery that abruptly ended his dazzling rookie season.
“I learned a lot of patience,” Strasburg said when reflecting on the past year of his life. “I learned that you’re really not going to see the big improvements day in and day out. You just got to trust the work. You’re just going to see the improvements more a month at a time.”
For the first five months of his rehab, Strasburg said, it felt as though it would never end. Not throwing a baseball for that long was almost as painful as the surgery itself. He began throwing in January, playing catch, and started progressing toward live batting practice sessions — which he began in July. From there, it was less arduous.
“I didn’t really know how long (the year) was going to feel like,” Strasburg said. “I felt like it was going to take forever for the first few months. But when I started to get on a mound and face some hitters, it started to speed up… It was really hard being down in Florida.”
Strasburg is expected to make four or five starts. The first three will come at home, Tuesday against Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 11, against Houston and Friday, Sept. 16, against the Florida Marlins. After that, whether he makes one or two more starts depends on how he’s feeling at that time and how the rest of the Nationals’ rotation lines up around him. He would be on target to start Sept. 21 in Philadelphia. The Nationals could opt to juggle him then, with an off-day on Monday, Sept. 19, but they’d have to give him two extra day of rest and push that start to Sept. 23 when the team would be home again.
None of that has been decided to this point.
“I have no instructions on starting him at home,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Saturday. “That would vary his rest in between. I may give him a time or two maybe an extra day, if there’s off days in there, or I may flip flop him if I think he needs an extra day so as to not get a tired arm, but it definitely wouldn’t be about being home or on the road.
“I just want him to be healthy. I’m not going to take him to the maximum number of pitches he could possibly throw. If he gets to five innings, five or six, that will be fine with me.”
Strasburg has made six minor league rehab starts this year, totaling 20 1/3 innings of work. The Nationals would like that number to be up closer to 50 total for the season before he heads into 2012. If he made four starts of five or six innings each, he’d be adding 20-25 innings to that total, which is exactly where the team would like him to be. He will most likely be held to an innings limit in 2012, much the same way Jordan Zimmermann was for this season.
“(Pitching this year) was my goal,” Strasburg said. “Besides that, I wanted to go into the offseason healthy. It look like, at this point, it’s hopefully going to happen.
“The bottom line is to go out there, get your innings in, build up your arm strength and go into the offseason healthy. I’m not going to put any expectations on myself. I’m not going to out there and win a Cy Young in four starts. I’m just going to go out there and try to help this team win some ballgames.”
Strasburg is going to have to walk something of a fine line in these final few starts of the year. While he was fine admitting his dominance when he’d cut up minor league lineups like it was nothing, noting that it wasn’t exactly a surprise — he had done that before — he also knows that his rehabilitation process from the surgery will not be fully over for another six to 10 months.
“I’ve been fortunate to have no real setbacks this whole time,” he said. “I feel very confident… but it’s still a work in progress. That’s how it’s going to be for a few more months. Hopefully I’ll be ready to go 100 percent in spring training 2012.”
And while it’s nice for the Nationals and their fans to salivate at the thought of having Strasburg and Zimmermann atop their rotation next season, Strasburg has his sights set even further down the road.
“ I’m looking a little bit further ahead to where we aren’t going to have the reins pulled on us where we’re out there 200 innings every year and helping this team get to the playoffs and hopefully win a World Series,” he said. “I think this rehab process has just helped me really focus and get back to (just doing the work). Last year, I was still kind of feeling it out, trying to see what it took to get through a season. I fell short of it, unfortunately. But I learned from it and I have a much better idea of what it takes to go through a whole year and be healthy.”