In first rehab start, Stephen Strasburg looks like his old self

HAGERSTOWN, Md. - Stephen Strasburg’s first rehab start at Single-A Hagerstown is in the books, with the right-hander flashing almost the same fastball (97 mph consistently, and 98 mph once), the same competitive streak (he said he didn’t like giving up the ball after 1 2/3 innings, and shot a couple snappy retorts at reporters’ questions) and the same curveball (he froze Wilfredo Gimenez for a called third strike with a nasty curve in the second inning).

He’ll have a handful more of these before he gets back to the majors, and Sunday’s game still had the feel of a dry run - he threw mostly fastballs, and wasn’t concerned with setting up hitters who were jumping at most of his early pitches. But if he continues on this path, he should be just fine.

“I knew the velocity was going to be there, just the way I was throwing in Florida,” Strasburg said. “Obviously, it’s still not where it was, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I was pretty happy with the command. You’ve got the adrenaline going out there, and you really don’t know how you’re going to feel, as far as being able to throw the ball where you want to throw it. But I went out there, and once they said, ‘Play ball,’ I got that feeling back real quick.”

Stephen Strasburg talks about his first rehab start back from Tommy John surgery

Of places to start, you could do worse than 97 mph.

Strasburg has stressed the work he’s done to improve the rest of his body during his rehab assignment, and he continued that routine on Sunday, going through an aggressive cardiovascular workout and shoulder exercises that didn’t put him in front of reporters until two hours after he got off the mound. He said that work has him feeling better off the mound than he did last year.

“I get on top of the ball a lot better,” Strasburg said. “I’m able to drive the ball down into the zone a lot better, a lot more efficiently. Before, I just wasn’t in as good of shape, and a lot of things that go with your pitching motion, it has to do with having a strong core, strong legs, also a strong upper body. When you have that good foundation, you’re able to execute pitches a lot better. The velo(city) still isn’t there, but (the ball) is jumping a little bit more than it did before.”

His average fastball last season was 97.3 mph, so if he’s sitting there with better late life, it seems like Strasburg won’t have much trouble. But as a matter of course, he’s likely to get his fastball up another notch or two.

He said his goal is to pitch in the majors in September, but like Jordan Zimmermann, Strasburg seems to know he’ll be better next spring than he will be this year, once he’s had a chance to rest after a long year of rehab.

He also dropped an interesting opinion when he got the obligatory question about changing his mechanics, saying he thought he might have torn his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last August in Philadelphia because he was getting tired.

“I’ve thrown this way my whole life, and I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel,” Strasburg said. “I think the biggest reason why I broke down was just because I got tired. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for a full season, 162 games. Unfortunately, I was the one that got hit with the injury bug, but I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m definitely in a lot better shape, and I think I’m on the right path to being able to throw 200-plus innings every year.”

It’s a smart answer from Strasburg; only he knows if it’s valid, and he certainly didn’t look fatigued when he was mowing down hitters in Philadelphia last August. But by putting the onus on something he can change (his conditioning), he can deflect the considerable scrutiny on his delivery - which he probably couldn’t alter at this point without risking injury or changing what’s clearly been an effective approach.

In any case, Strasburg appears to be surging ahead - blistering fastball, knee-buckling curveball, on-the-mound scowl and off-the-mound smirk all intact. And barring a setback, his trajectory would only seem to have one destination: Washington in September, for better or worse.

“I knew it was going to be a grind, from what everybody was telling me,” Strasburg said. “But it was something I was kind of looking forward to, believe it or not. I think that which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I’ve definitely grown up a lot from this, and I’ve gotten a lot stronger - not just physically, but mentally, as well.”