Commentary

Stephen Strasburg back at home

Nationals phenom returns from Tommy John surgery and looks like he never left

Updated: September 7, 2011, 2:48 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Stephen Strasburg needs an equipment truck to haul his mystique and aura to the mound, so it's hard to believe the kid has such an unassuming presence in the clubhouse. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was born to blend.

Washington closer Drew Storen still recalls the sense of anticipation surrounding Strasburg's major league debut, against Pittsburgh on June 8, 2010. While the other Nationals were engrossed in Strasburg-mania on ESPN, Strasburg staked out a spot in a comfortable chair and watched a show on Animal Planet. Then he went out and fanned 14 Pirates (with no walks) to send waves of euphoria through Nationals Park and awaken baseball to some amazing possibilities.

It was a similar scene Tuesday night, as an older and wiser Strasburg prepared to make his return from Tommy John surgery. While reporters descended on the nation's capital, general manager Mike Rizzo fretted about the Doppler forecast and the Nationals' team accountants lamented the effect on the walk-up gate, Strasburg prepared for his start in unflappable solitude.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireStephen Strasburg wasn't bothered by the attention or the rain in his return from Tommy John surgery.

Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown were famous for being so intense, they might as well have hung "No Trespassing" signs above their lockers. Strasburg drifts through the premises with such an understated precision, he's barely noticeable.

"He's almost regal,'' outfielder Jayson Werth said. "I call him 'The King.' That's what he reminds me of. He's very calm, very still. When he walks through the clubhouse, his head doesn't move. He strolls.''

Strasburg gradually emerged from his pregame cocoon and jogged to the mound at 7:10 p.m. ET Tuesday for the first time since August 2010 -- when he tore his right ulnar collateral ligament against the Philadelphia Phillies. When he unfurled a 96 mph fastball that Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon fouled back to the screen, it was a major step in what the Nationals hope will be a long and productive rebirth.

The Nationals envision a healthy Strasburg as a huge part of their future, and the results of his first game back were about as good as it gets. Strasburg threw 40 strikes and 16 balls to sail through five shutout innings. He threw 14 of 17 first-pitch strikes against the Dodgers and even managed to keep the rain at bay.

In the end, he wound up with a no-decision in a 7-3 loss to the Dodgers, but the result couldn't diminish the sense of optimism in the Washington clubhouse. One of baseball's best young pitchers and biggest drawing cards is back on the map.

"If you didn't like what you saw tonight, you don't like great pitchers,'' Washington manager Davey Johnson said.

Even Stephen Strasburg -- so ill at ease before crowds, and uncomfortable talking about himself, his goals and dreams -- was willing to concede that something momentous took place with this appearance. His start against Los Angeles came a mere year and three days after Dr. Lewis Yocum reconstructed his right elbow.

"It's a big milestone I've accomplished here,'' Strasburg said. "Ever since I went under the knife, it was my goal to be back in the big leagues in 2011. I've been able to do that, and now it's about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever for 2012.

"Everything happens for a reason. There's a reason why I went down, and I just had to take the positives from it and seize the day.''

Like Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, Strasburg's appeal is rooted largely in his ability to dent a radar gun. Fans throughout baseball swooned every time he hit triple digits in his rookie season. But that's not necessarily a recipe for long-term success. Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander ratcheted up his game after coming to the realization that velocity isn't the be-all and end-all, and Strasburg is sounding a similar theme.

He averaged 15.7 pitches per inning in his rookie season, and if it's possible to coax an extra inning or two from each start with a more efficient approach, he's going to try. If he can climb the ladder, work the corners and consistently throw 96 at the knees to induce weak contact, he's going to be a formidable obstacle for big league lineups.

Werth He's almost regal. I call him 'The King.' That's what he reminds me of. He's very calm, very still. When he walks through the clubhouse, his head doesn't move. He strolls.

-- Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth

"I think I've come to the realization that I don't need to try to throw 100 every time to get guys out,'' Strasburg said.

And if the Nationals ever come out with a beefcake calendar, he's ready. Strasburg has done extensive weight and cardiovascular work over the past year and emerged in significantly better shape, with stronger legs and six-pack abs. Rather than feel sorry for himself, he used the down time as an opportunity for some self-improvement.

"I don't want to say he was possessed, but I didn't see the guy outside the weight room in spring training,'' Storen said. "I was like, 'Dude, you're allowed to rest.' It's not like he was out of shape before, but now he's, like, shredded. It's like, 'Wow.'"

Not that Strasburg has suddenly reinvented himself as a "finesse'' guy. His fastball consistently registered in the 96-98 mph range against Los Angeles, and he blew away Aaron Miles with a 99 mph heater on the inside corner in the second inning. A few pitches before that, he struck out Andre Ethier with a 90 mph changeup that bordered on inhumane.

But it's the little things that also will help take Strasburg to the next level. The Nationals clocked him at 1.1 to 1.2 seconds to the plate against the Dodgers, which means he'll pose a challenge for opposing hitters who actually do reach base and have a mind to steal. Strasburg also laid down a successful sacrifice bunt in his first plate appearance and was disappointed when he failed to drop down a bunt in his next time at-bat.

Strasburg is so even-keeled, he barely blinked through a series of dire weather updates before his big outing. Johnson said Strasburg was "10 times more relaxed'' than Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty, who was a "nervous wreck'' until the game actually got under way.

Everyone finally had a chance to exhale when Strasburg threw that first pitch to Gordon and the big league portion of his comeback had officially begun. Now he can focus on lengthening out to 70 or 80 pitches in his next appearance and following up with a couple more productive outings to give him a strong foundation heading into the offseason.

In Stephen Strasburg's world, there's no such thing as a day wasted or a detail so trivial it can be overlooked. They're all part of the same road map to success.

"I'm still on a mission here,'' Strasburg said. "I didn't waste a minute waiting for this time to come, because I knew it was going to come sooner or later.''

The Nationals welcomed back an old friend Tuesday night. And it felt as if he had never gone away.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer