Finally, it’s beginning again to look a lot like Strasmus.
“It was kind of forced upon us. You couldn’t turn on the TV,” Washington Nationals outfielder Jonny Gomes(notes) said. “I mean, you’re talking about ‘Good Morning America’ covering it. You couldn’t help but buy into the hype.”
Gomes watched the Strasburg phenomenon from afar in 2010 with the Cincinnati Reds, but he’ll have a front-and-center view when the 23-year-old right-hander returns Tuesday, starting for the Nationals (65-74) against the Los Angeles Dodgers (68-72) just a little over a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Weather permitting, of course. After months and months of rehab that would test anyone’s patience - plus six minor league starts with four teams in four states - Strasburg might have to wait a little longer. The forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain, and even a delay would probably scuttle the Strasburg plans and disappoint what is expected to be one of the few sellout crowds at Nationals Park this season.
“If he warms up and it rains, we’ll probably have to do it another day,” manager Davey Johnson said.
Whenever it happens, Strasburg’s comeback is another sign of how the remarkable has become the routine, that a doctor can take a tendon from a pitcher’s thigh and use it to replace a damaged ligament in the elbow of the throwing arm.
The elbow popped while Strasburg was pitching against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 21, 2010, ending his rookie season with a 5-3 record and a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts. He had the surgery a few weeks later on Sept. 3, which means he’s returned at the front end of the 12-18 months of expected recovery time.
“That was my goal the whole time - to go out and pitch in September,” Strasburg said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have no real setbacks.”
If anything, Strasburg says he’s coming back better than before. That’s not unusual for Tommy John patients, mostly because they’ve spent a year in an intense workout regimen that strengthens the shoulder and the rest of the arm while rehabbing the elbow. The statistics from his minor league starts bear it out: 29 strikeouts and just three walks, with 14 hits allowed and a 3.54 ERA over 20 1-3 innings. His fastball was back in high-90s, right where it was a year ago.
Even so, there likely won’t be a repeat of Strasburg’s sensational major league debut on June 8 last year, when he struck out 14 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Johnson said Strasburg will be on a strict pitch limit.
“I followed his rehab and his recovery time and all that stuff,” Johnson said. “I talked to him four or five times because he comes in and out of here. In one of the sessions, I told him, ‘You looked nice and relaxed the last two starts. Just pitch, don’t overthrow.’ That’s what he did the last couple of outings. I will have a short leash on him the first couple of starts.”
Even Strasburg admits he won’t be his full-bore self until next season.
“Bottom line is to go out there and get your innings in and build up your arm strength, go into the offseason healthy,” he said. “I’m not going to put any expectations on myself. I’m not going to go out there and win a Cy Young in four starts.”
Strasburg has a fresh example to follow. Teammate Jordan Zimmermann(notes) returned from Tommy John rehab almost a year ago and just finished a successful comeback season, going 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA before reaching a predetermined innings limit of 160.
“Obviously, I’ll be on a limit like he was this year,” Strasburg said. “For me, I’m looking a little further ahead to where we’re not going to have the reins pulled on us and we’re going to be able to throw 200 innings every year and help this team get to the playoffs and hopefully win a World Series someday.”
The Nationals have been slumping recently and are trying to avoid a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NL East. Strasburg’s return provides a needed boost, both short-term and long-term.
“We all saw what he did last year, and what he’s capable of, and the type of stuff that he features,” reliever Tyler Clippard(notes) said. “Not too many people feature that kind of stuff in this game, and it’s fun to watch that. More importantly for this organization, we’re looking forward to him getting back on the hill and contributing for us at the big league level. We know how important he is to our team and the success of our team in the future.”
Strasburg will be opposed by Ted Lilly(notes) (9-13, 4.39), who is looking to win three straight starts for the first time since last August. The left-hander has beaten Colorado and San Diego in his last two outings, posting a 2.13 ERA while allowing eight hits and striking out eight over 12 2-3 innings.
Lilly gave up six runs over five innings against the Nationals on July 23, but he didn’t receive a decision as the Dodgers rallied from a four-run deficit to win 7-6.