- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

He was standing on a mound in Florida last summer trying to throw his first curveball since Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his right elbow. He could hardly reach the catcher.

It’s OK, he was told, it’s common for this rehab. Command of your breaking pitches is the last to return.

But this wasn’t any pitcher. It was Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals‘ otherworldly right-hander. And he’s never been common.

“Ask yourself,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said last September after Strasburg’s dazzling re-debut in the major leagues, “Is this guy normal?”

He was on that day.

“I can tell you,” Strasburg said, “the first time I started throwing breaking balls, I was spiking every single one.”

But almost everything else in his history says that he isn’t, in fact, normal. And, anyway, “normal” for those who have had Tommy John surgery can take on many forms in their first season back. When it comes to what to expect from Strasburg this season, there is no firm precedent.

Atlanta’s Tim Hudson won 17 games with a 2.83 ERA in 228 2/3 innings in his first season back. St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter led the league with a 2.24 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. For Jordan Zimmermann, it meant 124 strikeouts, a 3.18 ERA in 161 1/3 innings and a painfully boring final month of the season.

Those pitchers also threw their breaking stuff with varying frequency. According to Fangraphs.com, Hudson threw his curveball less than half as often in 2010, his first year back from surgery, as he did in 2011, but he used his slider at a relatively regular rate. Carpenter saw nearly a 3 percent increase in curveballs from his first season after surgery to his second.

Zimmermann used his curveball less, but his slider more - an indication of the maddening inconsistency he felt with both breaking pitches. “Hit or miss,” he called it. Some days the curveball would be on, others the slider. Rarely both.

“One day the curveball would be excellent, and I’d be like ‘OK, I got it figured out,’ ” Zimmermann said. “Come back the next day and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t even get it close to the zone.’ “

Halfway through the season, Zimmermann began to feel more comfortable, but it wasn’t until he arrived this spring that he felt things were back where they belonged. He’s been throwing both pitches for strikes with regularity.

Strasburg already has seen some of that improvement.

“I’m definitely not spiking it as much,” he said. “The break is coming back. Now it’s just fine-tuning it and picking a spot where I want to start it, and committing to it.”

He’s been briefed by the multiple Tommy John alums in the Nationals‘ clubhouse, from Zimmermann to Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus. But whether he deals with some of the same hurdles as others who have had the surgery is something only time and experience will expose.

This much we know: Strasburg will be shut down after he reaches about 160 innings - a number arrived at based on several factors including age, conditioning, innings thrown the previous season (44 1/3) and major-league innings before the injury (68). The Nationals don’t plan to fiddle with that number or space the innings so as to ensure their ace could pitch in a September playoff race.

In that allotted time, Strasburg, like everyone else, seems to expect near-perfection.

“He gives up a hit, he gets mad,” McCatty said this spring, shortly after naming Strasburg the Opening Day starter Thursday at Chicago. “He expects more out of himself than we probably all do.”

But as the Nationals prepare for their first season with Strasburg atop the rotation from the get-go, McCatty’s question from last September only seems to echo louder: “Is this guy normal?” Most expect him not to be.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the expectations people have for me,” Strasburg said with a shrug. “That’s never going to change. I have expectations for myself. As long as I go out there and compete to the best of my ability and do whatever I can to help the team win the ballgame, whatever happens, happens.”