- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2011

At 6:53 p.m., there was no going back. As dark clouds whipped past Nationals Park and forecasts offered a 100 percent chance of rain, Stephen Strasburg threw his first warm-up pitch.

Somehow, someway the fat drops of rain blanketing the stadium hours earlier were absent. Wind howled through the press box, sounding like a locomotive gathering steam. The radar spewed ominous shades of dark green and yellow.

But everything around the Washington Nationals’ young ace remained dry Tuesday, as his first major league pitch since undergoing Tommy John surgery one year and three days ago left his fingers. A 97 mph fastball at 7:10 p.m., fouled back by Dee Gordon of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And you wondered, half-jokingly, if Strasburg, already pitching with a rebuilt right elbow, could control the weather, too.

Stands were half-full, on a night that felt colder than the game-time 63 degrees. Last season, attendance shot up 15,564 fans per game when Strasburg pitched.

The foul weather dampened the turnout for Strasburg’s return Tuesday, when faithful wore No. 37 jerseys and parkas. Some shoved ponchos in pockets of cargo shorts. Most of the upper deck was deserted. Same for chunks of the lower bowl.

A couple of hours before game time, Nationals manager Davey Johnson didn’t think they would would play. The tarp was on the field, looking like an enormous, frigid Slip ‘n Slide. There wasn’t a window in the weather, Johnson was told. So, the manager talked of fallback plans.

Even drizzle likely would wash out Strasburg’s start, slated for four innings and around 60 pitches. Johnson didn’t want him throwing only one inning. Maybe there would be a doubleheader the next day. But a game Tuesday? No way.

Then the radar showed the weather shuttling around Nationals Park, a bubble with the 23-year-old right-hander in center.

A half-hour after the center field gate opened, a dozen fans occupied the bleachers.

A makeshift tent for a television crew up the muddy third-base line quivered in the wind. The crew huddled against sideways rain.

An hour and 20 minutes before the first pitch, concourses were virtually deserted. The stadium’s lights weren’t on. Nothing felt like the return of baseball’s most-hyped pitching prospect of the last decade.

One dreadlocked program-hawker shivered as he leaned on his stand. A No. 37 pennant next to him spasmed in the wind.

At Max’s Kosher Grill, there wasn’t a customer within 100 yards.

Employees thrust hands deep into blue jackets with Nationals logos or waited for something to do or, like the woman at the Dippin’ Dots stand, stood with her hood pulled over her head, clutched her arms to her chest and shook.

But fans slipped into Nationals Park as the Strasburg-shaped hole in the weather settled over Nationals Park.

Sure, the bleachers looked like the ninth-inning leftovers of a blowout. But Strasburg’s fastball touched 99 mph. And you could see glimpses of the pitcher who debuted last June with postcard weather and 14 strikeouts.

The crowd rallied, as Strasburg sliced through the Dodgers‘ lineup over five innings. The diving changeup to strikeout Matt Kemp. Roars. The 97 mph fastball Justin Sellers popped to Ryan Zimmerman in foul territory with supporters on their feet to end Strasburg’s stint.

Drizzle returned as he walked off the mound, into a handshake from Johnson.

As Strasburg left, everything else felt distant: the raw night, the empty seats, the scar from the surgery that repaired his right elbow. One thing mattered. He was back.