DENVER — Ryan Mattheus climbed the mound with more energy pulsing through him than almost any other time in his career. Jordan Zimmermann prayed that he wouldn't "walk the world." Sean Burnett thought about the long road he'd traversed to get to that point and Todd Coffey reminded himself not to put an undue burden on his shoulder while trying to protect his elbow.
Bonded together by a grueling surgery and rehabilitation process, each of the Nationals' four Tommy John surgery survivors recalled his first post-operation rehab start vividly.
"I was in the Gulf Coast League, and I had nerves like I was here," Mattheus, himself approaching the one-year anniversary of his first rehab outing, said from the comfort of a major league clubhouse.
"I was in a GCL game with no fans in the stands and I had nerves. I was 27 years old, facing 17-year-old kids and it was like I was making my major league debut."
Sunday afternoon, they'll add another to their brotherhood. When Nationals' prized right-hander Stephen Strasburg takes the mound at 4:05 p.m. in Hagerstown, he'll do so with his own emotions, his own nerves — and what could be close to 7,000 people watching.
Taking a monumental step in his recovery from Sept.3 Tommy John surgery, Strasburg will pitch two innings. Zimmermann made his rehab start in Potomac. Mattheus in the Gulf Coast League. Burnett completed his in instructional league with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fall of 2005 and Coffey, the elder statesman of the group, in the minor leagues with the Cincinnati Reds' organization.
Regardless of where it took place, all four sensed that it was a big moment in their recovery. A "huge step in the process," Burnett said. And it will most likely be that for Strasburg, though it projects to be the first of roughly six minor league rehab starts before he returns to the active roster in September. The first one is important, if only to get rid of those nerves.
"It was good to leave Florida and go to Potomac — and pitch in a game that meant something and there were people in the stands," Zimmermann said. "The first outing I had a little nerves, but not too bad. It was more just being able to throw strikes and have an audience. I just didn't want to walk everyone. I wasn't worried about my arm."
And while all eyes will be on the man who made one of the most anticipated major league debuts in baseball history 14 months ago, the true test, his teammates said, won't actually happen this calendar year. Even with reports saying he was throwing 92-95 mph in simulated games with no major setbacks, Strasburg may not be "Strasburg" immediately.
"The key is, once you're done with the season, not doing anything and just preparing like you normally would for next season," Coffey said. "That's when you're going to see a major difference, after that lull."
That's exactly what Burnett told Zimmermann last fall. The Nationals' first prized starter confided in the left-hander that his arm would feel great one day and terrible the next — even though he was continuing to feel stronger with each start.
"Just wait until next spring training," Burnett told Zimmermann. "Your arm is going to feel like a million dollars."
"All those months in rehab, you're always doing something," Burnett said. "It's nice to let your body heal itself and get away from everything. Mentally, physically, it makes a huge difference."
"I came to spring training this year and the arm strength was back, the stuff was back, and I was like, 'Wow, there it is,'" Mattheus added. "That was a great feeling. That was when I really felt like OK, the rehab process is over. My stuff's back. I'm not hurt anymore."
Strasburg has never been "just like everyone else." So perhaps he takes the mound Sunday and dazzles, just like he did last year. But he is still a pitcher 11 months removed from ligament reconstruction surgery. The start is an important one, but the end of the road is still a few miles away.
"It's a tough transition period to go from rehab throws, trying to make your arm feel good, to getting people out," Coffey said. "It's a tough deal. It's learning how to play the game again. Basically you took a year off from playing baseball and the game can get quick for you."
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