WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg's final tune-up for his return to the Washington Nationals came during a quiet mid-afternoon bullpen session on Saturday at Nationals Park. His trademark fastball blazed into a catcher's mitt, the sound echoing throughout the thousands of empty blue seats. The only audience members as Strasburg threw his 40-plus pitches were pitching coach Steve McCatty, a couple of medical staff and an unexpected observer, Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez.
"I was just curious to see how he's doing, and his fastball is jumping and his curveball unbelievable,'' Hernandez said. "He's had a long tough road to recovery, but it's going to be worth it. He's ready.''
The Nationals certainly hope so. They are struggling once again, battling to avoid finishing in last place for the sixth time in their seven seasons in Washington, but all eyes will be on Strasburg Tuesday night when he returns to the Nationals with a start against the Dodgers. The weather has to cooperate, though. There's a 90 percent chance of rain in Washington, and the last thing Nationals manager Davey Johnson wants is a delay after Strasburg has already thrown in warm-ups.
"Can you give me a better forecast?'' Johnson says. "If he warms up and it rains, we'll probably have to do it another day.''
The Nationals have already been waiting more than a year for their once-in-a-lifetime pitching prospect to take the mound for them after he blew out his elbow last August and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery. In his brief time in the majors last year, Strasburg captivated Washington and the entire baseball world, going 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts thanks in large part to a triple-digit fastball and hellacious curveball.
During his sizzling summer, Strasburg became the city's biggest baseball hero since Joe Hardy, the fictional character who sparked the Senators to a pennant in the play Damn Yankees that debuted on Broadway in 1955.
Strasburg, though, was very much the real thing. Pitching in front of frenzied crowds at Nationals Park and pumped-up attendances on the road, Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates without allowing a walk in his debut last June 8 against the Pirates, the most K's without a base on balls ever by a pitcher in his first game. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and ignited a debate about his worthiness as an All-Star after just a couple of starts (he ultimately wasn't selected). But in an Aug. 21 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, he threw a changeup and snapped the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
On Sept. 3, Strasburg, the top draft pick in 2009 from San Diego State who signed for a record $15.1 million, had surgery that cut a ligament from his thigh and was transferred into the elbow of his throwing arm.
Now, one year, one month and 16 days later, Strasburg is ready to rejoin the Nationals and become a staple in their rebuilding rotation. Strasburg will make four starts in September and be limited to no more than 75 pitches a game, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.
After a year of workouts, in the obscurity and quiet of Viera, Fla., where he went fishing, watched movies and played golf while hanging out with his wife, Rachel, his entire body, especially his right shoulder, will be stronger.
In four minor league rehab starts across four different levels in four different states, Strasburg had impressive numbers -- he pitched 20 1/3 innings with 29 strikeouts while allowing 14 hits and three walks with a 3.54 ERA -- and while he's ready to throw all of his pitches, he's going to focus on pitch efficiency and building arm strength and not strikeouts.
Strasburg will throw more two-seam fastballs, which comes in with a sink at 94-96 mph, instead of his trademark four-seam fastball, which can register 99-100 mph.
"He'll try to be more economical with his pitches and not go for the strikeout,'' Rizzo said. "The two-seam fastball gets more ground balls.''
Strasburg's health is Rizzo's big concern: "He's throwing free and easy. He's arm working and his delivery is under control. His stuff is there, and the best thing is that the day after he pitches, there is no pain or any problems.''
For the second consecutive September, the Nationals will have a top-of-the-rotation prospect rehabilitating an injured elbow. Strasburg is following virtually the same time line as his teammate, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who returned last August, a year and a day after having ligament-replacement surgery.
Zimmermann pitched in seven games last season after his return. This season, he threw 161 1/3 innings, going 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA before the Nationals shut him down to prevent fatigue from causing any more problems with his elbow.
The Nationals are expecting Strasburg and Zimmermann to be 1-2 in their rotation next season, but if Strasburg is on an innings-limit in 2012, the Nationals might not realize his 240-inning potential until 2013.
"He worked really hard, and I'm just trying to do the same thing,'' Strasburg said.
Johnson, who said he will decide by the winter meetings about whether he will return as the Nationals' manager, said he doesn't want to look ahead, but he did anyway.
"The scary thing is what happens if we are in a race and Strasburg is going to have a limit of 160 innings like Jordan Zimmermann?'' Johnson said. "That's the $64,000 question. Also, are there going to be limitations in Zimm? If so, we are going to need another horse around here.''
But it will not be just his decision: "It will be people that are a lot smarter than me. Now, you have a surgeon, two or three pitching instructors, a trainer and general manager on a committee. I don't know how it is all going to work.''
Zimmermann said that Strasburg has called with questions a couple of times during his rehabilitation. Zimmermann said that for him, the last hurdle from the surgery was getting rid of the tightness that he felt in the elbow the day after he pitched in 2010. By spring training, that was all gone.
"It's probably going to be the same thing with him,'' Zimmermann said. "But, these starts in September will allow him to go to spring training and not have to think about anything other that pitching and competing.
"It's a long process and he has to know that his arm isn't always going to feel good this month,'' Zimmermann says. "He has to keep pitching through the ups and downs.''
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said the team has been looking forward to Strasburg's return and to feel the same the electricity he brought to the ballpark last season.
"It's exciting,'' Desmond said. "He's going to be good for this team, and he's going to have a long career. I hope the worst is over.''
Since the first ligament-replacement surgery was done by Dr. Frank Jobe on pitcher Tommy John in 1974, the procedure has a 95 percent success rate, and many pitchers, including Chris Carpenter, Kerry Wood, Francisco Liriano and Shaun Marcum, have pitched long careers. Last season, 10 pitchers in the All-Star Game had come back from the surgery.
But there can be setbacks.
The New York Mets' Chris Capuano had ligament-replacement surgery twice, in 2002 and again in 2008. "The first time I was only 24 and there were no problems,'' said Capuano, who at the time was a prospect in the D-backs' system. By 2005, Capuano was an 18-game winner in 2006 he made the NL All-Star team.
But in the spring of 2008, Capuano injured his elbow trying to add a curveball to his repertoire. "I threw too many in a short period of time,'' he said.
Johnson managed Strasburg in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and since then he's seen Strasburg add a sinker and changeup to his precision command and blazing fastball.
Now, Johnson wants Strasburg to spend September building his foundation and thinking about arm strength.
Strasburg understands that. He said that he's not going to win a Cy Young Award in four starts.
"The bottom line is to go out there, get your innings in build up your arm strength and go into the offseason healthy,'' Strasburg said. "It was my goal to come back this season and go into the offseason healthy. At this point, it looks like both are going to happen.''
That's not his only goal. "I'm looking a little further ahead, when we (he and Zimmermann) will be able to pitch 200 innings every year and help this team get to the playoffs and win a World Series some day.''