Wednesday September 7th, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg's first change-up bounced just behind the plate. Because the two-strike pitch was traveling 90 miles per hour and darting downward into the dirt only at the last moment -- not to mention that it was preceded by a pair of 97-mph fastballs -- the Dodgers' Andre Ethier swung anyway.

That second-inning strikeout of Ethier was the first for Strasburg at the culmination of a long, though quicker-than-expected, recovery from the Tommy John surgery that derailed last year's rookie season for the Nationals' right-handed phenom.

In all Strasburg threw 56 pitches over five innings in his return to a major-league mound one year and three days removed from his elbow operation, dazzling Dodgers hitters for four strikeouts, two hits and no runs, looking to be nearly the same pitcher who generated a national frenzy over 12 starts last summer.

"It's a big milestone that I've accomplished here," Strasburg said. "It's something that, as soon as I went under the knife, my goal was to pitch in the big leagues in 2011. I've been able to do that. Now it's all about getting stronger, staying healthy and being even better in 2012."

Strasburg acknowledged that his stuff isn't all the way back from his rookie campaign in which he went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 68 innings, but he proved he can still dial it up. He followed the strikeout of Ethier with a classic flamethrower's demolition of Aaron Miles. Strasburg started him with a pair of 97s, up and away and then down at the knees, both of which Miles flicked foul. Strasburg then followed with his fastest pitch of the night, firing an 0-2 heater at 99 mph to the high-inside corner of the strike zone, rendering Miles unable to halt the speeding baseball with his meek matador's wave of the bat.

"He was definitely up to the hype," said Ethier, who compared Strasburg to the Mariners' Felix Hernandez and the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez. "He has great stuff. He commands all his pitches, hits his spots. You can't miss your pitch. If you do, you find yourself on the bench real quick."

Strasburg exited the cool and intermittently rainy night in line to record his first win since July 21, 2010, but the bullpen -- veteran long reliever Doug Slaten and rookie Brad Peacock, who was making his major-league debut -- blew the lead in an otherwise dreary game the Nationals lost 7-3.

But for the long-term future of the organization, what mattered is that Washington got its ace back.

"He was outstanding," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He looked totally relaxed, totally in control. He had all his pitches working. Shoot, he just made it look easy. It was nice seeing him back."

In this second go-round of Strasmas, the in-stadium excitement paled in comparison to last year's debut, when the sellout crowd of more than 40,000 roared after each of his 14 strikeouts. This year, however, largely due to the poor weather, many fans were deterred. Only 29,092 tickets were sold, and fewer than half actually made it to the stadium.

Sure, Strasburg's curve wasn't as sharp as it has been and didn't account for any of his seven swing-and-miss strikes against L.A., but his fastball and change were plenty up to the task. And, yes, he was held to a regimented pitch count, but Nationals fans better get used to it -- Strasburg may not be truly unleashed on baseball until 2013.

And given that attention showered on the former No. 1 overall pick, Strasburg's career path could become the poster child for the modern pitcher.

It's an era of pitch counts and surgeon's scalpels, when young pitchers follow strict throwing programs that make them either coddled or protected, depending on whether you root for a team or sign the team's payroll checks. It's a time when a huge number of pitchers are on the disabled list but also an age when a significant surgery like Tommy John results in a success rate greater than 95 percent for major-league pitchers.

Young starters are proliferating the game, and none -- when healthy -- are better than Strasburg, who, as you might expect, will be from here-on-out handled with kid gloves in hopes of mitigating risk of future injury. The year off from pitching afforded him a chance to strengthen himself, so even though he said he hasn't changed his pitching mechanics, his body ought to be better equipped for the grind of a season.

"I knew he worked his tail off," Johnson said. "He was in the best shape I've ever seen him. He had slimmed down. He was more muscular."

Reports from Nationals camp are that Strasburg is likely to be held to an innings limit in 2012, which may result in him being shut down next August, before finally in 2013 being given the green light for him to achieve his personal goal of being the workhorse ace who annually exceeds 200 innings.

"I'm still on a mission here," Strasburg said. "I wanted to get stronger, mentally and physically, through this process. There was something new I wanted to work on every single day here. I didn't waste a minute waiting for this time to come, because I knew it was going to come sooner or later."

He's 23 now and will pitch the first half of the '13 season as a 24-year-old, so while that may seem like an eternity for Washington fans, it'll still be early in his career, presuming he staves off further significant injury.

One change in his approach that could facilitate a lengthened career was on display Tuesday. The Nationals are encouraging Strasburg to throw his two-seam fastball more often and while it reaches the plate a few ticks slower than his four-seamer, it arrives with sink, generating more pitcher-friendly contact.

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

While Strasburg didn't carry a power pitcher's normal allotment of walks last year -- he didn't issue any free passes in five of his 12 starts and averaged 2.3 per nine innings -- an even more concerted effort to challenge hitters could further reduce his nightly pitch counts. After all, as electric as his fastballs, curve and change-up can be, hitters won't often make good contact.

"Guys going at me don't want to get to two strikes," he said, "so I've got to make quality pitches early in the count and try to get them to put the ball in play, get good contact and get quick outs."

On Tuesday, Strasburg started 14 of the 17 Dodgers he faced with a first-pitch strike and threw only 16 balls against 40 strikes. Leadoff hitter Dee Gordon punched a soft liner into shallow left-centerfield, which he legged into a double; Juan Rivera singled on a grounder that shortstop Ian Desmond could have fielded; and only one ball, a James Loney lineout to rightfield caught by Jonny Gomes, was struck hard.

Such an approach may temper last year's gaudy strikeout totals, but shouldn't diminish his effectiveness. That much was clear on Tuesday night. The Strasmas holiday is back every five days on the Washington calendar -- and hopefully here to stay.

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