- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2011

Stephen Strasburg was the rare phenom whose outsized hype didn’t outpace his performance as a rookie, when he became a national sensation with the lowly Washington Nationals. From his dazzling debut of 14 strikeouts in seven innings, to the last, fateful game when he had six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings, Strasburg was a veritable deity on the mound.

So as he prepares to pitch in his first major league game since suffering a major injury last Aug. 21, there’s no reason to downplay what it represents for Strasburg, the Nats and baseball, in general. When you’re considered the savior of a forlorn franchise and the future face of MLB, there’s only one phrase to describe Tuesday night’s start:

“The Second Coming.”

Of course, the same could’ve been said of Aug. 26 last year, when Jordan Zimmermann returned from Tommy John surgery. But it wouldn’t have the same ring.

However, the Nats gladly will accept similar results in Strasburg’s case. After Zimmermann reacclimated himself to the majors with seven starts in 2010, he was outstanding this year, his first full season since the operation, posting a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts. Zimmermann was shut down after reaching a team-imposed innings limit (he finished at 161 1/3) - likely the same fate awaiting Strasburg next season - but he’ll face no such restrictions afterward.

Nonetheless, we should temper our expectations of Strasburg’s return, and not just because Tuesday’s ominous weather forecast might push it back. No, we should pare down our hopes because they were ridiculously high in the first place before Strasburg ruptured the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Strasburg’s dominance in 12 starts made us question whether hyperbole exists in his case. Statements such as “He’s en route to becoming the greatest pitcher of his generation (or all time!),” were deemed not completely outrageous. If he had three consecutive starts in which he threw a no-hitter and then a perfect game, followed by 27 strikeouts, someone would’ve sniffed, “Told you so.”

That can’t be the thinking in the handful of starts he’ll make this month and the 25 or so he’s presumed to make next season.

“The bottom line is to go out there, get your innings in, build up your arm strength and go into the offseason healthy,” he told reporters Saturday at Nationals Park. “I’m not going to put any expectations on myself. I’m not going to out there and win a Cy Young in four starts. I’m just going to go out there and try to help this team win some ballgames.”

Some more wins would be great, but that’s hardly the most important thing over the season’s final three weeks. Strasburg’s primary focus is to knock off rust while the Nats look at young players who might join him in the 2012 picture, such as last Saturday’s starter Tom Milone and righty Brad Peacock, who’s expected to be Strasburg’s designated reliever.

Strasburg’s return will provide just a taste of what’s ahead for him and the organization, but it’s only part of a process, a lone step among many. There’s no rush for him to resemble the blow-them-away sensation we remember from last season. The Nats are still two years away from having Strasburg and Zimmermann, their Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers, at full, unrestricted strength.

If all goes well, Strasburg will have been shut down at this point next season, after a good-to-great campaign, while Zimmermann keeps going strong. Everything that happens between now and then is only to ratchet up expectations for Strasburg and the Nats in 2013.

That’s the true focal point, not Tuesday.

“I’m looking a little bit further ahead to where [Zimmermann and I] aren’t going to have the reins pulled on us, where we’re out there 200 innings every year and helping this team get to the playoffs and hopefully win a World Series,” Strasburg said.

“I think this rehab process has just helped me really focus and get back to [just doing the work]. Last year, I was still kind of feeling it out, trying to see what it took to get through a season. I fell short of it, unfortunately. But I learned from it, and I have a much better idea of what it takes to go through a whole year and be healthy.”

None of that sounds as exciting or sensational as “The Second Coming.”

But it’s the level-headed, steady-as-she-goes approach that’s mandatory if the Nats are to experience rapture.

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