"All-in-all I was pretty pleased." Stephen Strasburg, on his first rehab performance.
The last time Stephen Strasburg was on a pitching mound against an opposition was last Aug. 21 in Philadelphia, the scene now etched into the memory of every Nats fan, as the former No. 1 overall pick delivered a pitch to Phillies rookie Domonic Brown, then grabbed his elbow in pain and looked into the dugout as if to say, "Come and get me."
Two weeks short of one year, Strasburg finally took the mound against live batters getting paid to beat him. Though far away from the bright lights of the Major Leagues, there was still plenty of attention focused on the franchise arm of the Washington Nationals. There were so many media credentials handed out for the appearance, media members received a list of special instructions and some weren't even able to attend the post-game press conference, as the facilities at Single-A Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium just weren't built with this kind of activity in mind.
When Strasburg was finally let loose on the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he showed all all his pitches, though primarily he threw his two and four-seam fastballs. He mixed in, by my account, four changeups and three curveballs, none of which drew contact. He reportedly hit 96-98 on the radar gun for his four-seam fastball. He threw 31 pitches, 25 for strikes and generated seven foul balls, all on the fastball.
As for the results? He went 1 2/3 innings and allowed three hits. His lone run allowed was a solo home run by Grasshoppers catcher Jacob Realmuto; the other two hits were ground ball singles. He struck out four, including a called strike three on a curveball, and walked none. In fact, only one batter drew more than one ball on any given at bat.
The team hoped that he would get through two innings before the imposed 30-pitch limit, but when Strasburg struck out the No. 8 hitter on a changeup with his 31st pitch for the second out of the second inning, Suns manager Brian Daubach came out to get the ball from his starter.
After his appearance -- and a conditioning and therapy session -- Strasburg met the media. He seemed matter-of-fact about his performance, ready to take the next step, probably Friday night either for Single-A Potomac or Double-A Harrisburg.
"I knew the velocity was going to be there, just the way I was throwing in Florida," Strasburg said. "Obviously, it's still not where it was, but you've got to start somewhere. I was pretty happy with the command. You've got the adrenaline going out there, and you really don't know how you're going to feel, as far as being able to throw the ball where you want to throw it. But I went out there, and once they said, 'Play ball,' I got that feeling back real quick."
Strasburg talked a bit about the excitement to pitch competitively again. "I was super-excited to get back out there. It's been close to year since I've pitched against another team. I wanted to go out there, throw a lot of fastballs; that's the real foundation I wanted to set. I wanted to work on my fastball command. Just go out there and have some fun."
As for his pitch selection, Strasburg said, "The curveball came back a little bit today, which I'm pretty happy about. Obviously the off-speed is the last thing that comes, so all-in-all I was pretty pleased."
"Every time I step back on a mound it gets a little bit more sharp."
As I wrote back in the spring, the most important development for the Nationals this season was the recovery and rehabilitation of Stephen Strasburg. There are those that like to listen to themselves talk claiming the Nats are rushing Strasburg back this season to sell tickets, and it's rubbish. This is the timeline set for Tommy John recovery. It's a 12-18 month process, and Strasburg is getting the first taste of actual pitching again.
As with most Tommy John survivors, his velocity was good. The velocity and strength come back first, but the command and control are the part that take the next six month to a year to regain. And Strasburg's command and control are what separate him from the other hard throwers. We've witnessed Jordan Zimmermann progress through his recovery this season to regain his elite command, and it's a process the Nationals hope Strasburg follows to the letter.
Zimmermann will be shut down in a couple weeks after three or four more starts as he reaches his team-imposed innings limit for this season and it's entirely likely that Strasburg takes his place in the rotation. Strasburg will then be limited to 160 innings or so next season as Zimmermann was this season. Hopefully everything goes according to plan for both pitchers, and at the start of the 2013 season the Nats can line these two up at the top of their rotation without limitations.
Strasburg took his next step toward that goal in Hagerstown on Sunday, and looked pretty good doing it.
***Quotes borrowed from published sources, including MASNSports.com