Dave Nichols: Rehab, not hitters, is Strasburg's new challenge

The most important development for the Washington Nationals this season won't take place on the field. With no disrespect to an up-and-coming middle infield, a $126 million dollar man in right field or the growth of a potential All-Star phasing out one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, the biggest story to watch this season will take place in doctor's offices and on minor league fields across the mid-Atlantic.

As much as Nats fans want to see a winner in Nationals Park in 2011, the team's ability to be competitive will be limited by several factors, but none as large as the gaping hole at the top of their rotation. That spot had been reserved for Stephen Strasburg, a once-in-a-generation pitching prospect that cruised through his minor league apprenticeship to make a spectacular debut, only to crash in similarly spectacular fashion a mere 12 starts later.

Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, dominated the minor leagues in his first season of professional baseball and was promoted for his first big league start June 8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. There could have been no better opponent for the 6-foot-4, 220-lb. wunderkind than the free-swinging Pittsburgh Pirates.

Stephen Strasburg gets a pie in the face after a dominating performance in his Major League debut

During his stint in the minors, Strasburg was instructed to work on his two-seam fastball, which sinks, in order to generate more groundball outs. But upon Strasburg's recall, veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez was like a man with a new sports car, wanting to test it out to see what it could do.

Rodriguez called for the four-seamer, the one that topped out at 100 mph, all night long. Coupled with a devastating curveball, the Pirates flailed away for 14 strikeouts in seven innings, including all three outs in Strasburg's final frame. The performance left even veteran baseball scribes and announcers speechless. It was, very simply, the greatest pitching performance in Washington Nationals history.

Strasburg then began a string of carefully managed starts, with close attention to pitch counts and innings limits. But nine starts in, the rookie had trouble getting loose for a start and he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. He was activated two weeks later for a start against Florida and was beaten up, allowing six earned runs on six hits and two walks. He got through another start against Arizona, and then came the unthinkable.

On Aug. 21, in Philadelphia against the hated Phillies, Strasburg once again took the mound. He was cruising against the National League champions, allowing just one run on two hits, striking out six in 4 1/3 innings. He was flat-out dominating the top batting order in the NL. But after delivering a 2-1 pitch to rookie Domonic Brown, Strasburg bent over in agony, clutching his right elbow. He looked to the dugout in a panic, as if to say, "Come and get me." NatsTown held its collective breath.

The initial diagnosis was a strain, but further testing was necessary. Everyone knew what was coming. A few days later, on the same day teammate Jordan Zimmermann made his triumphant return from a similar injury, came the two words every pitcher dreads: Tommy John. Strasburg faced ligament replacement surgery with a 12-18 month rehab. The rest of his 2010 season and almost of 2011 - along with the hopes of all Nats fans - would be down in flames.

Flash forward to today. Strasburg is six months into his recovery and rehabilitation. He has started playing catch and every day brings a new opportunity to strengthen his surgically repaired right arm. If he can follow the schedule that Zimmermann mapped out last season, he may be able to make a dozen or so minor league starts later this summer. Perhaps, if everything goes perfectly, he could even get into a major league game or two in September.

Everyone, from the ownership group down to the peanut vendors, can only hope. It's only the competitive future of the franchise for the foreseeable future on the line.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations this week, as MASNsports.com begins a season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site.

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