Less than a month after Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery to repair a "significant tear" of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the right-hander met with the D.C. press corps to discuss the early stages of his rehab. Given a chance to ask the Washington Nationals' '09 no. 1 overall pick a question, I asked if the injury had overshadowed what the pitcher had accomplished in his first twelve major league starts?
"You guys can decide that," Strasburg responded, "I'm chalking it up as a great season, it's unfortunate for this to happen, but I went up there, I stirred up the baseball world well enough that it had more people becoming Nats fans and I know they're going to be there when I come back in a year, so I'm not too worried about it and I'm going to work as hard as I possibly can to get back out there and show everybody what I have to bring to the table."
Strasburg had surgery on September 3, 2010. On August 7, 2011, a 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg returned to competitive action, throwing 31 pitches in 1.2 IP over which he allowed three hits and one earned run on a HR by Florida Marlins' backstop prospect Jacob Realmuto. "It's a great feeling," Strasburg told reporters after that first start, "when you go out there, you get through the first inning, you go out there and do it again, and you just kind of get that itch to go out there and compete in five days and that's something that I haven't been able to experience for a long time." Five days later Strasburg started for the Potomac Nationals.
On September 6, 2011, after six starts and 20.1 IP in the Nationals' system and three days after the one-year anniversary of his surgery, Stephen Strasburg returned to the mound in the majors, throwing 5.0 scoreless against the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of a crowd that was smaller than expected (29,000+ announced, but less due to the weather) but every bit as enthusiastic about what they saw as the sold out crowd of 40,000+ that had turned out for his MLB debut just fifteen months earlier had been.
"It felt good," Strasburg told reporters after his 5.0-inning, 56-pitch, 4 K outing, "It was a long time coming, a lot of hard work, and it's good to be back out there contributing."
"He doesn't look like he's making a whole lot of effort and 96 mph on the knees, on the corners," Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson marveled in the post game press conference. "He threw some good breaking balls, had an outstanding changeup, 90 mph changeup, that's almost unhittable. He was just impressive."
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was impressed, but not too surprised, as he told Sirius XM MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy the next day. "His stuff is his stuff, it's outstanding. He's got electric stuff with command, which separates him from a lot of people, but the only thing you worry about is how does he react the day after and he feels good today."
Strasburg made each of his scheduled starts, and Davey Johnson lobbied for him to get one more than expected too. In his final outing of the year on the road in Sun Life Stadium, Stephen Strasburg threw 6.0 scoreless, striking out 10 Florida Marlins' batters and earning his sixth major league win, the first curly-W he'd recorded since July 21st of 2010. The right-hander finished the year (1-1) with 15 hits, 5 runs, 4 ER and 2 walks (0.75 BB/9) allowed in 24.0 IP in which he'd K'd 24 (9.00 K/9) and posted a 1.50 ERA, 1.28 FIP, 0.71 WHIP and a .242 BAA.
The Nationals and D.C. GM Mike Rizzo had been questioned and criticized for "rushing" Strasburg back, but he made it through five starts, looked at times like his pre-surgery self and set himself up to come into Spring Training healthy and ready for a his first full-year back on the mound. Strasburg will, of course, be on an innings-limit similiar to Jordan Zimmermann's this past season, but he'll be back at the top of the Nationals' rotation in 2012 barring any setbacks, or hiccups.