- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

More than five years ago, Stephen Strasburg made his professional debut for the Harrisburg Senators, taking the mound in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

After throwing five innings, striking out eight and walking two in a 6-4 win for the Washington Nationals’ Double-A affiliate, Strasburg talked about better times ahead.

“I still want to get better and make it to the big leagues sometime soon and have a long, successful career,” he told reporters.

Since then, there’s been success and failure, delight and despair, and now here he is again — back in a Harrisburg Senators uniform, still looking to have a long and successful career.

This time, though, the anticipation that accompanied the debut of the most-hyped pitching prospect of the 21st century has been replaced by the anxiety of whether or not Strasburg — five years into his major-league career — can fulfill the promise that defined him five years ago.

Strasburg will make a rehabilitation start on Wednesday after going on the disabled list on May 30 following a series of injuries to his ankle, neck and back.
“It was a combination of underlying injuries and mechanics. It’s feeling much better,” Strasburg told reporters on Sunday. “Hopefully, everything goes according to plan on Wednesday, and I’m back here helping the team win some games.”

Nothing has gone according to plan since that beginning with the Senators. There was, of course, the spectacular major-league debut two months later at Nationals Park, when Strasburg struck out 14 batters in seven innings in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that became known as “Strasmas.”

More than two months later, he was under the knife, undergoing Tommy John surgery to replace a torn ligament in his right elbow. Then, after a brief stop in Harrisburg as part of his recovery, and finally returning to the rotation at the end of the 2011 season, he was shut down before the end of the Nationals’ division-winning 2012 season. It followed the team’s protocol for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery — and was the same protocol it followed the year before with Jordan Zimmermann.

Since his debut five years ago, there’s been the hard-luck Strasburg, who has pitched well and led the National League with 242 strikeouts last season, and head-case Strasburg, seemingly wilting under pressure on the mound.
Mostly, there has been the disappointing Strasburg — particularly this year, with a 3-5 record and a 6.55 ERA in 10 starts.

The Nationals are hoping that Strasburg, now 26, can find the magic he brought with him in his debut with Harrisburg, because time is running out. He will be eligible for free agency at the end of next season.

“I think he’s ready for it, as long as he feels good physically, so we’re happy about that,” Nationals manager Matt Williams told reporters on Monday. “He has had no issues so far, so we’ll step up the competition and intensity a little bit and make sure he’s good to go.”

When Strasburg debuted with the Senators, the team was just opening a renovated ballpark on City Island along the Susquehanna River. The Harrisburg Patriot-News called it a “once-in-a-generation” event — one that turned out to be a game delayed three hours by rain.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Senators general manager Randy Whitaker told the Patriot-News. “Even people who don’t know who he is would ask us, ‘Is that pitcher guy coming to Harrisburg?’ Every other call we get in the front office is somebody asking when Stephen Strasburg is pitching.”

Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr was the Senators’ manager when Strasburg started his professional career there. It turns out he was a prophet of sorts when he talked to reporters before that game.

“Check out his body language,” Knorr told reporters. “The last time he pitched he was a little amped up. It took a while for him to settle down. He’d throw a pitch and then hunch over on the mound a little bit. That was out of character for him.”

Now it has come to define his career — the bad body language, the Strasburg shutdown, the timer ticking away on the promise clock.

“Hopefully after a few years in the big leagues, and having a lot of success, I can say that I’ve finally made it,” Strasburg told reporters in 2010. “But I just have a lot to work on.”

He still has a lot to work on.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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