WASHINGTON -- Mother Nature is threatening to spoil Stephen Strasburg's return to the major leagues. Just a little over a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 23-year-old right-hander is scheduled to start for the Washington Nationals against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night.
But the Washington D.C.-area forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain, which could push Strasburg's start back at least one more day.
"If he warms up and it rains, we'll probably have to do it another day," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "Can you get me a better forecast?"
That may be wishful thinking as heavy rains hit D.C. on Monday night and were expected to continue on Tuesday.
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
"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."
The buzz surrounding Strasburg's return is not limited to Washington D.C. or the Nationals' clubhouse. Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly is looking forward to seeing Strasburg in person.
"It's good for the game. It's good for this city," Mattingly said. "You want to see the best guys here (in the major leagues). Guys like this are fun to play against."
Asked if he would have liked to face Strasburg, Mattingly, a left-handed batter with a career .307 batting average, smiled and said "sure, especially since he's right-handed."
Mattingly said he liked facing "guys who really bring it" like Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. In fact, he went a combined 20-for-63 (.317 batting average) against Ryan and Johnson during his 14-year career with the Yankees. "I liked the fastball," Mattingly said.
Mattingly might be hoping his players like the fastball too.
The Dodgers have gotten the reports on Strasburg's rehab starts and have heard that he's throwing strikes and that his fastball is back in the high-90's.
Strasburg's teammate Jordan Zimmermann had Tommy John surgery in August 2009 and just finished his first full season back with the Nationals. He said he told Strasburg to expect some ups and downs during his comeback.
"It'll be a little bit of a roller coaster ride," Zimmermann said. "One day it feels great and one day not so great. Some days you feel like you have a brand new elbow."
Zimmermann said it took him three or four starts to feel like his elbow was fully healed and not to think about the surgery.
Just like fans and players around the league, Zimmerman is eager to see Strasburg's return to the majors.
"I'm excited to see him. It's exciting for the team."
George Smith is a reporter for ESPN. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.