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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Nats aren't rushing Stephen Strasburg

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

On an electric Tuesday evening in Washington, we will once again find Stephen Strasburg back where he belongs, back atop a big league pitcher's mound, as his stadium rocks and the rest of his sport snaps to attention.

I'm still not sure why there are people out there who think we would be looking for him anywhere else.

This is what he does. This is where he works. This is the moment he's been grinding toward for 12 interminable months.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg, 23, last pitched in a big league game on Aug. 21 of last year against the Phillies.

This is where the rehab road leads all modern-day Tommy John surgery patients -- back to the mound, 12 months after the doctors put their elbow back together. Some even make it back sooner in this miraculous day and age.

In Cincinnati last year, Edinson Volquez was back, pitching in the big leagues, 12 months and 2 weeks after his Tommy John surgery.

In Atlanta the year before, Tim Hudson was back, pitching in the big leagues, 12 months and 3 weeks after his Tommy John surgery.

In Washington, Strasburg's teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, was back in August 2010, pitching in the big leagues, 12 months and 1 week after his own Tommy John surgery.

So why should Stephen Strasburg be any different?

His first start back comes exactly 12 months and 3 days since he headed into Dr. Lewis Yocum's operating room and had his elbow reconstructed. When Strasburg walked out a few hours later, they handed him a pamphlet laying out the long trail he would be following from that day forward.

That trail was always designed to take him precisely this long -- 12 months if everything went right. Since then, everything has gone just about perfectly. Now here he is. So what's all the furor about?

Tommy John himself has raised questions about all this, asking publicly: "What difference does it make if Stephen Strasburg is out 10 months or 15 months?"

Curt Schilling said last week, right there on the "Baseball Tonight" set: "I don't think there's anything he can accomplish [in the big leagues this month] that he couldn't accomplish somewhere else, in a less stressful environment."

Now these are two bright men who know a lot about pitching -- and who are all too familiar with trips to visit their favorite orthopedic surgeons. So they have every right to express their opinions on this topic. And their opinions are always worth hearing.

But where is the evidence the Nationals have rushed Stephen Strasburg back?

You won't find that evidence in his rehab schedule, where he never had a single setback.

And you won't find it in his six minor league rehab starts, where he regularly hit 98 and 99 miles per hour on the gun, where he struck out 29 hitters in 20 1/3 innings, where he whooshed through five hitless innings to kick off each of his final two starts.

And it's not as if he's going to be asked to make six starts this month, or to push himself into the seventh or eighth inning. The plan, tentatively, is to send him out there three times, with a cap of five innings or 85 pitches, then get him the heck out of there.

So what, exactly, is the problem?

"It doesn't behoove us to rush this guy back," says Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. "The premise of us rushing this guy into pitching for us, it doesn't make much sense, baseball-wise or business-wise."

OK, so it might be true that running Strasburg out there in Nationals Park might ring this team's cash register more than, say, your average start by Tom Gorzelanny. Strasburg's three big league starts this month are all lined up to take place in Washington. And nobody is dumb enough to think that's just some fortuitous coincidence.

"But if you look at the global business side of it," Rizzo says, "and obviously this isn't my expertise … this guy is a long-term cog for this organization."

Except in truth, "cog" doesn't come close to describing what Stephen Strasburg represents for the Washington Nationals. He was the face of this franchise before he ever threw a pitch for this franchise. And now, even after this little Tommy John detour, wherever he is going the next five years is directly tied to wherever they're going.

Mike Rizzo I wouldn't say we've changed his delivery. We've tweaked his delivery. So he'll be basically the same pitcher -- if not a better pitcher.

-- Nationals GM Mike Rizzo on Strasburg

So what's more in their best interests -- pumping up the gate for three starts in September or doing whatever they need to do to turn him into about a 14-time Cy Young winner? Doesn't seem like that tough a question.

"We want him to get a baseline of innings pitched in 2011 to set the foundation for 2012," Rizzo says. "We just don't want him coming in cold in 2012 and have to say, 'Here, you haven't pitched at all. Now we want you to pitch in 2012. And we want you to hit. And we're going to stop you at X amount of innings.'"

Oh, you could argue, as Schilling did, that Strasburg could accomplish all of this in "a less stressful environment." He could go to the Instructional League and pitch there. He could go to the Arizona Fall League and pitch there. Both of those scenarios were "viable alternatives," Rizzo admits.

"But ultimately," the GM says, "we'd like to test him at the big league level, for him to mentally, physically and psychologically prepare for 2012."

In their defense, the Nationals followed this identical blueprint a year ago, when Zimmermann arrived in D.C. late in the season on his way back from his own Tommy John surgery. So if what they're doing now is all wrong, how come no one was raising these same issues a year ago, in Zimmermann's case?

Zimmermann wound up pitching 31 innings in the big leagues before the end of last season, after racking up 39 2/3 minor league innings on his rehab-start odometer. He had his ups and downs after his return, going 1-2, with a 4.94 ERA. But most importantly, he laid the groundwork for a "normal" offseason that set the stage for an encouraging, even head-turning season, this year.

He got on such a serious roll this May and June that he spun 11 consecutive quality starts on the way to a 3.18 ERA through 26 starts. At that point, the Nationals decided he had thrown enough innings (161 1/3) for the year. But no one in the organization thinks what he did this season would have been possible without that big league time he got last year -- not the GM, not the pitching coach, not Zimmermann himself.

"I think it helped quite a bit," Zimmermann says. "To actually get out there and get some experience and know that I'm still able to get big league hitters out was a big thing for me. All my rehab starts went pretty well. But I was still unsure: Was I good enough to get big league hitters out? So for me to go up in September was a big thing for me."

As Zimmermann describes his own 12-month journey back from the operating room, he admits that no matter how many people told him he would be fine someday, he was "nervous" that maybe he would be different. So every stage he passed on the way back helped ease the fears that never stopped flaring.

"At first, when you go to throw, you think, 'Is this going to hurt?' because I didn't want to have the same pain I had before," he says. "And then, after the first three or four days of throwing, it felt like I had a new arm again. So I kind of got over that fear. … Then you get into your first game and you wonder how it's going to feel. And after a couple of games go by, you get over that fear."

Eventually, by the time he reached the big leagues, he says, there were "days where your arm doesn't feel good at all, and days where it feels like it never felt before. So it's kind of like a roller coaster. There are days … you don't feel like throwing. But you know you have to keep throwing and pitch through it."

Those days are coming for Strasburg, too, of course. And Zimmermann has told him to be ready. But learning to cope with all that "is part of the rehabilitation process," Rizzo says. "That's where you start knocking the rust off from not pitching for a year."

Can you do that in the Instructional League? In the Arizona Fall League? In a lonely bullpen? In a simulated game or three?

Rizzo doesn't think so. Dr. Yocum doesn't think so. And there's a long history of other patients who traveled this road and proved this is now the only road, unless the pitcher isn't normal, unless he has issues other Tommy John alumni don't normally have.

And Stephen Strasburg has not been one of those patients.

"His stuff is back where it was, pre-injury," Rizzo says. "I wouldn't say there's no difference whatsoever, but there are flashes of no difference whatsoever.

"Feel, command, tempo of pitching -- those are usually the last thing that comes when you're talking about Tommy John," he goes on. "But velocity-wise, the ball jumps out of his hand. The rotation of the breaking ball, the dive of the changeup -- that's all there. … But what separates Stephen from a lot of power pitchers is command, specifically command of the fastball. And he needs to knock a little rust off that."

So where would he be most likely to find that Rust-Oleum -- on a big league mound or on a back field in Viera? Again, doesn't seem like that tough a question.

All that time away from pitching has allowed him to "sculpt" the rest of his body, Rizzo says. And to devote more time to studying the mental side of pitching. And to "tweak" his delivery slightly, to lengthen his stride, to get more on a downward plane, to enable him to get some easier outs with the less stressful two-seam fastball.

"But I wouldn't say we've changed his delivery," Rizzo says. "We've tweaked his delivery. So he'll be basically the same pitcher -- if not a better pitcher."

If that's true -- if this Stephen Strasburg is really going to be better than the guy who rang up 92 strikeouts (and gave up only 56 hits) in 68 big league innings last year -- we've got some fun baseball watching ahead.

If not, if something goes amiss, then we might be more ready to concede the critics here might have had a point.

But the facts are the facts. And the facts of medical life tell us that nothing about the timing of this guy's trip to the mound at Nationals Park on Tuesday is different in any way from the journey of any other Tommy John patient … except for one thing:

His name is Stephen Strasburg.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst