HAGERSTOWN, Md. — They spilled into the aisles at Municipal Stadium, covered with sweat and No. 37 jerseys and hope. No seats remained, so they packed elbow-to-elbow. Then they saw him, and cellphones shot up for desperate pictures. Beer sloshed out of plastic cups. Necks craned. A paper tray of fried pickles balanced by an elderly woman nearly overturned.
Stephen Strasburg was back.
Three hundred fifty-one days ago, Strasburg hurled a fateful pitch to Philadelphia's Domonic Brown. Then the Washington Nationals' right-hander walked off the mound, the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow torn. Baseball's best mound prospect in a decade needed Tommy John surgery.
When Strasburg made his first rehabilitation start Sunday with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, you couldn't see the scar on his right elbow. But you saw 31 pitches. Some touched 96 to 98 mph. His arm felt fine. You saw 24 strikes. You saw a pitcher escaping the drudgery of tossing 9:30 a.m. simulated games at the team's spring training facility in Viera, Fla.
You saw hope.
"It seemed like once they said, 'Play Ball!" the 23-year-old Strasburg said, "I got that feeling back real quick."
Returning Strasburg to the front of the Nationals' rotation means more than regaining an ace. It's about regaining the top pick from the 2009 draft who boasts the team's top-selling jersey of all-time. He's appeared in only 12 big-league games. When Strasburg pitched at Nationals Park, attendance jumped by an average of 15,564 fans.
For a team tied for last place in the National League East and ranked 15th of 16 NL teams in attendance, Strasburg's recovery reaches far beyond nine innings.
Sixty-five media credentials were issued for Sunday's game. That surpasses even Strasburg's much-hyped ascension through the minor leagues last season when his first career start, with Double-A Harrisburg, garnered 48 credentials. So many media were on hand, Hagers-town's tiny press box was off-limits to the press. A memo with 405 words of guidelines to cover Strasburg was issued to the media.
The 25 cameras on hand clicked and whirred as Strasburg jogged in a red pullover and threw in the bullpen before the game. Two photographers perched on dirty red chairs. The groundskeeper hollered at others to keep off the grass. No one was allowed to cross a line etched in the dirt down the right field line. Nationals officials orchestrated the scene, as "Billie Jean" blared from loudspeakers and Greensboro Grasshoppers players nudged reporters to ask what the fuss was about.
Hagerstown first baseman Mils Rogers poked his head from the clubhouse and mouthed, "Wow."
"Stephen, over here!" squealed a boy lost in the crush of autograph-seekers and fence-leaners up the first base line.
"Not to be rude," Strasburg said after the game, "but [the attention] really is not that important to me. As an athlete, my goal is to go out and win."
Strasburg's mechanics were clean and easy. After each pitch he shook his arm, said to be a normal habit. He focused on establishing his fastball, but was surprised his curveball was effective. Breaking pitches are usually the last thing to return for a pitcher after arm surgery.
The first eight pitches were strikes. By the time the line of fans outside the stadium's gates disappeared in the second inning, rust emerged for Strasburg. Jacob Realmuto lined the second pitch he saw over the fence in right-center field. A single followed.
"I knew the velocity was going to be there," Strasburg said. "It's not where I was, but you have to start somewhere."
A throaty man tried to start a "Let's go Strasburg" chant. No one from the sellout crowd - estimated at 6,107 - joined.
While sun fought through the overcast, rain drizzled. It was nothing like the thunderstorm that soaked the field two hours before the game.
Strasburg used four pitches to strike out Ryan Fisher. The pitcher who needed only 11 games in the minor leagues and fanned 14 players in his big league debut seemed near. Then Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach ambled from the dugout to end Strasburg's afternoon.
Strasburg was scheduled to throw two innings or 35 pitches. His program mirrors that of Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals' right-hander who returned last season from Tommy John surgery.
The normal recovery time from the surgery is 12 to 18 months. Strasburg is less than a year removed from the procedure, performed Sept. 3.
The next start of Strasburg's 30-day minor league rehabilitation assignment comes Friday, if he stays on schedule. No site has been announced, but it's likely to be Single-A Potomac or Harrisburg. Both teams are at home, while Hagerstown is on the road.
"I think I've definitely grown up a lot from this," Strasburg said into a cluster of 11 microphones.
Then he edged out of the room, his rebuilt right elbow and the hopes of a franchise in tow.
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