Stephen Strasburg at ease with rehab process

VIERA, Fla. - That piece of paper Stephen Strasburg used to write down his thoughts last September, when his golden right arm was in tatters and the hopes of a fanbase were crushed? He’s barely looked at it.

The mental toll of rehabbing in the stifling Florida heat, after his teammates had gone north and taken camaraderie with them? Strasburg’s endured it by playing golf with Ryan Zimmerman swinging through on a rehab assignment, or befriending the coaches guiding him through his throwing program every day. And the itch to fast-forward through what might be the toughest year of his career, so he could get back to filling up stadiums and lighting up radar guns? It’s still there, but Strasburg has learned to manage it.

Traveling to the Nationals’ spring training complex this morning to interview Strasburg as he heads for the home stretch of his rehab from Tommy John surgery, I saw the prized right-hander as relaxed and as at ease with himself as he’s been since his meteoric rise to the majors last spring. He had a slight smile on his face through most of the interview, not the piercing gaze reporters frequently saw last year. He answered questions about criticism of his mechanics thoughtfully, and offered stories about working with new Nationals manager Davey Johnson when both were part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. And mostly, Strasburg projected an air of confidence that while he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll be back in the majors, he’s certain he’ll be better for the process.

Stephen-Strasburg_Nats-Grey-Hangloose-wide.jpg“A lot of it (last September) was wanting this year to speed up and get it over with,” Strasburg said. “I’ve had 10 months to work on it. I’m sure if you’d talked to me a couple months (after surgery), when I was still in the sling, I’d be in a different spot. But I’ve had a great support system all along the way. They’ve helped me see things clearly, and know that I’m on the right track.”

Our entire interview with Strasburg will be on later today, and you’ll be able to catch a portion of it on “The Mid-Atlantic Sports Report” and “Nats Xtra” in the next couple days. But here are some other highlights from my conversation with Strasburg:

* Strasburg threw 20 fastballs in a bullpen session today, after playing long toss from around 90 feet. He said it was the first time the Nationals allowed him to “let it go” - by my guess, he was probably throwing around 80 mph - and while his command wasn’t there yet, as a product of throwing easier than he could, the earmarks of his electric stuff were there. His fastball left his fingers with the same audible hiss it has when it’s climbing toward 100 mph, and hit the catcher’s mitt with the usual pop. “Today was the first day they allowed me to let it go, and that’s the hard thing about Tommy John rehab,” Strasburg said. “You can feel great, but you don’t really know what’s going on inside there. You have to listen to the people that have gone through this before. I’m following it to a T. I’m not going to do anything stupid that’s going to jeopardize the rest of my career.” He was careful, though, to make one point: At first, he said he wasn’t able to throw as hard as he could, but then corrected himself to say he wasn’t allowed to throw as hard as he could. There’s that feisty streak that goes with his fastball.

* On Davey Johnson, Strasburg said, “I just remember how he treated me like one of the other guys, where I really didn’t feel like one of the other guys. I was the only college kid on that (Olympic) team, and I think he really made a point to make me feel comfortable out there. That was a big jump for me. I’d never started before, and I threw 97 innings in college, and I was right around 55 for the summer. I went out to pitch against Cuba in the last game, and I threw a ton of pitches. I think we were winning 3-2 and he takes me out in the fourth. I just remember him saying, ‘You’ve got a long career ahead of you, and there’s no reason to risk it out here.’ That was the game to get to the gold medal game. Even in that sense, when he had no ties to me, he was really looking out for my best interests. I thank him for that, and I’m really looking forward to playing for him.”

* Pitching in the majors this season remains a goal for Strasburg - he talked almost wistfully about pitching in packed stadiums again - but he seems to have that part of the process in perspective. “I’ve learned how to be more of a professional,” Strasburg said. “You hear all these things about how hard Roy Halladay works - going to the field early, using his program and having it be so structured, he knows what he has to do every single day. I hope one day people look at me like that. I want to be that guy that is known for being the hardest worker - not necessarily the best player, but the hardest worker. ... I’ve put a lot more emphasis on it. Just physically, I’ve matured a lot. I think I still have a ways to go. If I keep on this track I’m on, it’s going to work out in the end. I want to be a horse in the rotation someday. I want to be able to throw 240 innings in a season and be that guy that, you need me to go out in the eighth, ninth inning, you need me to pitch on three days’ rest, I’m that guy. I’m preparing for that, and obviously, it’s not going to happen next year, but hopefully somewhere down the road, I’ll be able to do that year in and year out.”

Part 1 of my interview with Strasburg is here.

Part 2 of my interview with Strasburg can be viewed here.

Part 3 of my video interview with Strasburg can be viewed here.