VIERA, Fla. -- It was a dark and stormy day ... until Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg took the mound at Space Coast Stadium, that is. Torrential rain and gusty winds looked as if it could threaten Strasburg's Sunday start, but an hour before game time, the clouds were gone and the sun was shining.
Perhaps the turnaround in the weather just in time for Strasburg to make his spring debut is a sign of good things to come, and his first performance of the 2012 Grapefruit League season was solid. From a health perspective, his outing was uneventful (as expected, considering Strasburg is almost 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow). Given that he made several late-season starts in 2011, Strasburg has already proven that he has recovered sufficiently enough to face major league hitters. Still, with the prospect of pitching for his first full season since the injury still on the horizon, the natural questions facing Strasburg at this point are the same for any pitcher following this surgery. Will he recover his trademark velocity? Is he going to struggle with command or lack consistency? While one 44-pitch spring training outing is not going to yield definitive answers, there's every reason to be optimistic about Strasburg's progress and projections going forward.
Strasburg's velocity looked on par, but his command was a bit shaky against the Houston Astros. Although he had good location on some of his early pitches, the third inning was not so kind. After striking out Chris Johnson to start the inning, Strasburg gave up a home run to catcher Chris Snyder, followed by a double to center fielder Jordan Schafer, who then advanced to third on a wild pitch. Strasburg retired 'Stros shortstop Marwin Gonzalez on strikes before exiting the game. After the game, Strasburg acknowledged that he was "a little erratic at times" but added that he knew his command would get better with more repetitions and fine-tuning his mechanics.
Given where Strasburg is in his overall recovery process and fresh off the offseason, his command challenges were not unexpected, and the takeaway from this start was largely positive. His delivery looked smooth and effortless. Even Strasburg described this first outing as "pretty much a breeze" as far as how his arm felt. He noted that all the work he put in during the offseason seemed to help prevent any between-inning fatigue, and he was pleased with his initial effort. He also noted that it was "big" for him to be able to come back late last year with no setbacks, giving him the confidence to focus on the year ahead. The Nationals already have indicated they will limit Strasburg to 160 innings in 2012, just as they did with their other young ace, Jordan Zimmermann, when he returned from the exact same injury. It's as if the road map for Strasburg has been nicely laid out by his teammate, and given Zimmermann's success, don't expect the Nationals to detour from that plan, barring some sort of setback.
While Strasburg was certainly the most notable player for me to check in on Sunday, there are a couple of other guys worth a mention. Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury that ended his 2011 season last June. LaRoche has been swinging a bat and throwing in spring training and originally had his sights set on a Sunday return. But it now appears LaRoche will instead make his spring debut on Wednesday, according to the Nationals' website. So far his progress has him on track to be ready for the start of the season, assuming he doesn't have any setbacks.
While I didn't get to see much of LaRoche, I did get a look at Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was in the starting lineup against the Astros. Zimmerman struggled early last season with an abdominal strain before undergoing surgery in May for a sports hernia. Once he returned to action, it took some time for him to regain his power, but he rebounded to have a strong second half. Translation: Zimmerman enters the 2012 season fully healthy.
In the pitching department, Nats relief pitcher Brad Lidge delivered a scoreless seventh inning Sunday. Lidge, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies, started each of the past two seasons on the disabled list. In 2010, he was coming off elbow surgery; in 2011, he was battling a rotator cuff strain. If he can get through spring training without any issues, he likely will serve as a middle reliever in front of Nationals closer Drew Storen.
According to Strasburg, the Nationals under manager Davey Johnson are gradually building up as they approach the regular season, focusing on getting better every day. Given the length of the season, that's certainly a tactic that could pay off in terms of the health of their players. At least that's what the Nationals are hoping for.