Monday, September 5, 2011

Stephen Strasburg Returns

Strasburg walks off the mound after his last ML appearance on August 21, 2010
On Tuesday, Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will make his first Major League appearance since he underwent Tommy John surgery last September.  He'll start at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers just over a year after he had his operation.

Last June, Strasburg somehow matched the immense hype surrounding him by recording a Major League record 14 strikeouts in his first start, and proceeded to take the league by storm.  In July, however, forearm pain forced him to the disabled list.  He would return in August, but after three more starts he was shut down for the season. By the end of August it was apparent that right ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction--Tommy John surgery--would be necessary, and on September 3rd he had the procedure performed.

Just more than 11 months later, Strasburg took the mound for a rehab appearance with the Nationals' Low Single-A affiliate, Hagerstown.  It was a lower level than he had ever pitched at before and he threw only 31 pitches over 1 2/3 innings before departing, but the excitement was palpable all the same.  As he moved up through the minors, worked up higher pitch counts, and dominated opposing hitters in five of his six starts, it became more obvious that he would make it back to the Majors in 2011.

And, on Tuesday, September 4, that journey will be complete.  Assuming he has no setbacks, he will make about five starts this year for Washington, something almost no one thought would be possible when he went under the knife twelve months ago.  Lynn Zinser of the New York Times represented the prevailing opinion at the time, writing: "Strasburg... is facing a 12-to-18 month recovery from the operation and perhaps another season to recover his form."  In defying the odds, Strasburg will give hope to other pitchers that they, too, can accomplish the same feat.  Teams and fans will no longer hear Tommy John surgery as a death sentence that will keep the player out for 12 to 18 months, and even then have them return as a shell of their former self.

When Twins fans hear that their top prospect Kyle Gibson must have the same surgery, as was announced mere days ago, they can hold out hope that he will be able to pitch in a few games at the end of 2012.  They don't have to look back on Joe Nathan and his 12-month recovery that saw him pitch poorly upon his return  before finding himself back on the disabled list.  Nor do they have to look at the horror story that followed Francisco Liriano's operation, which forced him out of game action for 18 months and then caused an absolutely miserable season when he did finally return.

Instead, they, and fans across baseball, can look at Strasburg's path, one that took only one year, almost exactly, before he was back at the Major League level and within reach of his former dominance.  Beyond the fact that we as fans get to see him pitch again, Stephen Strasburg's return gives us hope for everyone else who receives the same diagnosis.

Article first published as Stephen Strasburg Returns to the Big Leagues on Technorati.

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