The email came in at 6:50 p.m ET: “Strasburg warming up.”
That was the cue: A running diary for the return of Stephen Strasburg to the majors. If you weren’t pumped up about this game, you must have cold blood running through your veins.
The cameras flash to Strasburg walking in from the bullpen, his red warmup jacket protecting his right arm on a cool, overcast evening at Nationals Park. When I see Strasburg, I don’t think of the pitcher who dominated in his 12 starts a year ago, the hyped phenom who didn’t disappoint, which is near impossible to do in this age. Instead, I flash back to a Gary Nolan, a 19-year-old teenager with the Reds in 1967 who posted a 2.58 ERA and had the best strikeout rate in the National League. He’d turn up with a shoulder issue in spring training the next year and battle injuries the rest of his career, eventually surviving on control and guts. I think of Frank Tanana, a lefty with a blistering fastball, a teammate of Nolan Ryan with the Angels; he was better than Ryan, and he was just a kid. At age 23, he pitched 14 consecutive complete games, posting a 1.36 ERA over those 126 innings. He was never the same after that, although he managed to fashion a long career as a finesse pitcher.
So I think of all those pitchers who didn’t have the advances of modern science, all those pitchers whose elbows and shoulders were shredded from overuse at a young age, or simply had doctors and trainers tell them to rub some hot, smelly ointment on their arm and get back out there, because that’s what you did in baseball.
Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery just over 12 months ago. There’s no guarantee he’ll be what he was last summer and no guarantee that he’ll be firing 98-mph fastballs a year from now or 10 years from now. But we know this: He’ll have a better chance than Gary Nolan or Frank Tanana.
Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon is the first batter, and he steps in with more empty seats than the Nationals would have liked, but that’s what bad weather will do. Strasburg threw 71 pitches in his final rehab start -- 56 for strikes -- and he’s expected to go about 60 pitches on this night. Strasburg looks the same as last year -- a growth of hair on his chin, the strong, athletic build. He fires a 97-mph fastball that Gordon fouls off. An effortless-looking delivery, but as we learned last year, effortless doesn’t always mean injury-safe. On a 2-1 pitch, Gordon lines a fastball into left-center, an easy double with his speed.
James Loney jumps on the first pitch, another 97-mph heater, and flies to center. MVP candidate Matt Kemp also jumps on the first pitch -- the Dodgers’ game plan is pretty clear -- but fouls off a 96-mph fastball. Nothing but heat so far from Strasburg, and while it’s not the 99- and 100-mph smoke we saw last year, he’s not exactly Jamie Moyer out there. He finally throws his first breaking ball, a curve that Kemp takes low and away. Kemp then grounds another curve to shortstop. Juan Rivera flies routinely to end the scoreless first.
The crowd gives Strasburg a nice ovation. It’s just one inning in a long, difficult comeback, but I bet it felt as good as that first time in Little League when he struck out some 11-year-old kid wearing glasses and a Scott’s Tux Rentals uniform.
He gets ahead of Andre Ethier at 1-2, then throws a changeup in the dirt that Ethier swings and misses. A 90-mph changeup. Followed by a 97-mph fastball. Just mean. Aaron Miles fouls off the first pitch and Nationals TV analyst F.P. Santangelo talks about how manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo have discussed Strasburg throwing more two-seam fastballs rather than four-seamers, which are a few mph faster, but also straighter.
In other words, the dreaded pitching to more contact.
I’ll be blunt here: If that’s what Johnson and Rizzo are going to stress, they’re wrong. Yes, I understand the desire to want Strasburg to pitch deep into games. Strasburg averaged less than six innings per start as a rookie, but he was also on strict pitch limits -- he never topped 100 pitches in any of his 12 starts. Pitching economy is smart; “pitching to contact” scares me. And if anybody should know better, it’s Johnson: He managed Dwight Gooden in 1985, when he had one of the greatest seasons ever. The next year, Mel Stottlemyre stressed to Gooden to start pitching to contact. Gooden was never as good again. (Yes, there are mitigating factors here.) Look, only two starters since 2000 had a higher strikeout rate than Strasburg’s 12.2 in 2010, and those guys were named Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
Hey, I could be reading too much into this; maybe pitching to contact means Strasburg strikes out 10 batters per nine instead of 12. But I just cringe when I start hearing any suggestion that striking out batters isn’t a good thing for a pitcher.
Anyway, Aaron Miles conveniently make me smile when Strasburg blows him away with a 99-mph four-seamer. Pitch to contact? Not tonight. Rod Barajas flies out to center to end the inning.
James Loney lines out to right field. Matt Kemp strikes out. Juan Rivera grounds a ball under the glove of shortstop Ian Desmond, ending Strasburg’s run of retiring 11 batters in a row. He then blows away Ethier with 97-mph heat.
With only 48 pitches through four innings, Strasburg returns for a fifth inning, leading 3-0. He throws eight pitches, gets three outs and leaves to a standing ovation. His final line: Five innings, two hits, no runs, four strikeouts. The most impressive stat: no walks. They say the most difficult aspect for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery isn’t necessarily velocity, but control. Strasburg had no issues with location in this game.
He’s scheduled for three more starts. I suggest you tune them in if you can. If your blood is cold, Stephen Strasburg will warm it up, and that’s some of the best news we’ve heard in the 2011 season.
PHOTO OF THE DAY