Dave Nichols: The second coming of Stephen Strasburg

Washington Nationals right-handed starter Stephen Strasburg, dubbed “Baseball Jesus” by a teammate last season during spring training, made his much-anticipated return to a baseball field facing batters paid to beat him Sunday, as he took the mound for the low Single-A Hagerstown Suns against the Greensboro Grasshoppers (no joke) in his first minor league rehab appearance, as he continues his recovery from ligament replacement surgery. The appearance comes two weeks less than one calendar year from that fateful night last Aug. 21, when he grabbed his right elbow in pain after throwing a change-up to the Phillies’ Domonic Brown.

Strasburg threw all his pitches on a very hot and humid afternoon at Hagerstown’s historic Municipal Stadium, 28 years to the day that Hall of Famer Jim Palmer made his first rehab appearance in the same stadium, then part of the Orioles’ system. Strasburg threw 31 pitches in all, 25 for strikes. From my seat just off the third base dugout at field level, I counted four change-ups and three curve balls, one of which completely froze his Single-A opponent for a called strike three to start the second inning. He surrendered three hits, two ground ball singles and a solo home run to right center field on a fastball he left up in the zone to Grasshoppers’ catcher Jacob Realmuto, a 20-year-old from Midwest City, Okla., who’d hit just three dingers all season.

His final line read more like a reliever’s than a starter’s, but the strict pitch count ended his day one out short of two innings. Strasburg struck out four and did not walk a batter in the effort, and afterward he told the media that “All-in-all, I was pretty pleased.”

Much will be made about Strasburg’s velocity Sunday - he sat at 96-97 mph with his four-seam fastball and touched 98 at least once. But with Tommy John survivors, the velocity and arm strength generally come back first. Velocity comes from the shoulder and the torque generated from there. This is the basis for his dominance of hitters, the preternatural ability to strike hitters out.

The elbow, on the other hand, generates the command and control for a pitcher, and that’s where the rehab process goes from the 12 months it takes for the pitcher to get back on the mound to the 18 months before he feels like he has command and control over his pitches.

What’s the difference between command and control? Command is simply the effort of throwing strikes, getting the ball over the plate. Control is being able to do what you want with the pitch instead of just flinging it over the plate. Strasburg said his primary objective Sunday was his fastball command, and throwing 25 strikes on 31 pitches is a very good result. But the one fastball that got away from him - and a batter made contact on - ended up over the fence. He may have gotten away with other “mistakes” as well, but these are low Single-A hitters, probably overwhelmed simply by the velocity.

“I wanted to go out there, throw a lot of fastballs; that’s the real foundation I wanted to set,” Strasburg said. “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.”

Strasburg is exceptionally hard working. He took his recovery and rehab very seriously and has returned a better conditioned athlete and a smarter athlete, armed with the knowledge his doctors and trainers have imparted to him. Whether he makes a full recovery and leads the Nationals to “the promised land,” as he said following Sunday’s game, is now up to him and his surgically repaired right elbow. But he’s off to an encouraging start.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nationals News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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