The forecast was daunting, the radar a mishmash of greens, yellows and reds bearing down on Washington. Yet there stood Stephen Strasburg, bone dry, on a mound at Nationals Park, firing 97 mph fastballs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The picture of calm.
That fact alone seemed to be improbable. Three hours earlier, Nationals manager Davey Johnson sat in a room full of reporters and delivered what appeared to be the grim truth. He'd just spoken with head groundskeeper John Turnour, who told him, quite frankly, "there won't be much of a window."
But in spite of the projections for downpours of biblical proportions well throughout the night, the rainstorms that had pelted the D.C. area all day didn't affect Strasburg. Neither did his surgically repaired right elbow.
In five dazzling innings, Strasburg looked less like a pitcher who hadn't seen major league action in more than a year and more like the young ace who announced himself to the baseball world with authority last June.
"The game," he said, "seemed like it was in slow motion out there."
"I've never seen him any other way," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "He doesn't look like he's making a whole lot of effort — 96 mph on the knees, on the corners. He threw some good breaking balls and had an outstanding change-up. It was almost unhittable.
"If you didn't like what you saw tonight, you don't like great pitchers."
One year and three days after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Strasburg needed just 56 pitches to get through five innings of scoreless work. He struck out four, threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 17 Los Angeles Dodgers he faced and was still hitting 97 mph on the stadium's radar gun when he fired his final pitch. He averaged 11.2 pitches per inning — less than any of the 12 starts he made for the Nationals in 2010 — and walked off the mound with a 3-0 lead, in line for his first major league win in 411 days. It was a return bright enough to overshadow an eventual 7-3 Nationals loss.
"Unbelievable," said catcher Wilson Ramos, shaking his head. "His pitches, his stuff, his arm speed. Everything. It was unbelievable."
"It looked like he didn't skip a beat," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "That's pretty special. To be able to come back — with the adrenaline, the media, everything else — and be able to hone in on the strike zone and do your job to that ability? Unbelievable."
His first pitch came in right on schedule. At 7:10 p.m., Strasburg fired a 96 mph fastball up and away to shortstop Dee Gordon, who fouled it off. Three pitches later, Gordon doubled to left-center field on a 97 mph, letter-high fastball. And until Juan Rivera's grounder sneaked up the middle in the fourth inning, he was the last Dodger to know the feeling of reaching base against the Nationals' phenom.
Twenty-six minutes — and five batters — after he threw his first pitch, Strasburg dropped in the first changeup he's thrown from a major league mound since the fateful one in Philadelphia last Aug. 21. It came in at 90 mph, bounced in front of the plate and still Andre Ethier swung. Then Ethier sat down, the first out of the second inning.
Fifteen others tried, and they all failed. Four of them did so by flailing at Strasburg's final offering. He struck out those four, all swinging, and generated six swings and misses. He's often said that despite the gaudy totals he is not a strikeout pitcher. Ascribing to pitching coach Steve McCatty's philosophy, Strasburg has said he aims for early contact and ground balls. The strikeouts happen because, well, sometimes they just can't hit it. The Dodgers couldn't Tuesday night.
"It really is a mindset," he said. "Guys know they don't want to get to two strikes."
In front of an announced crowd of 29,092 that in reality couldn't have been more than half of that with the doomsday weather predictions that proliferated all afternoon, Strasburg needed just 35 pitches to make it through his first three innings. He displayed command of all four of his pitches and lit up the radar gun in truly Strasburg-ian style. His first 99 mph fastball was to third baseman Aaron Miles in the second inning. He swung and missed.
"If the pitch isn't well-located, they're still going to hit it," Strasburg said, unimpressed by his radar gun readings — even with a brand new ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. "I'm really trying to be a pitcher out there. I'm not trying to light up the radar gun all the time."
Everything worked for Strasburg, who was given a 3-0 lead in the second when Ramos doubled home Chris Marrero and Strasburg brought home Ramos when Ted Lilly threw away the right-hander's bunt attempt. A single by Desmond and an RBI groundout by Jayson Werth to score Strasburg provided a cushion far more than their ace would probably need even six months from now. In a less-than-ideal situation with rain approaching, Doug Slaten helped that lead slip away and it was downhill for the Nationals from there.
But Tuesday was not truly about the game's outcome. It was about the return of an ace who'd made his presence on the mound a must-see event only a year ago. If control is the last thing to come for Tommy John survivors, and Strasburg admitted it comes and goes for him, he didn't show any signs of it on Tuesday.
"He's a unique, special talent," said pitching coach Steve McCatty, who, despite requests from his pitcher, did not doff his cap to the adoring fans calling out for "Stephen" as the two walked in from his warmup bullpen session.
"Anything he does does not surprise me. If I say this, it sounds like I'm knocking (Jordan) Zimmermann. I am not. With Zimmermann last year, he went through (some control issues). That is the norm for Tommy John. Ask yourself, is this guy normal?"
After firing his 56th and final pitch, and watching Justin Sellers pop out to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in foul ground, Strasburg stepped lightly on his way off the mound. He got the handshake from Johnson and the Nationals bullpen began to stir.
The rain that was predicted to deluge Nationals Park didn't come until much later. Strasburg was back.
"I'm still on a mission here," he said. "I wanted to get stronger mentally and physically through this process. ... It's a big milestone that I've accomplished here. Ever since I went under the knife, that was my goal: to be back pitching in the big leagues in 2011. I've been able to do that. Now it's about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever for 2012."
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