In his return, Stephen Strasburg shows he’s “on a mission”

There was no part of Stephen Strasburg’s rehab from Tommy John surgery that was focused on a dominant showing in his first start back from the operation. Getting to the major leagues this year after having surgery last September was a goal, yes, but it was more of a milestone than a destination.

And that’s a good thing for the Nationals, because as impressive as Strasburg was in his first start this season, sailing through five shutout innings in a scant 56 pitches, they can leave the park with this reassurance: He’s going to get better.

Strasburg still has room to grow as he returns to the majors. He still hasn’t thrown more than 70 pitches, and he probably won’t get much above 80 pitches this season. His command of his fastball was impressive, but not perfect, and he said after his start that his stuff is “as close as it’s going to get this season.” But as effortlessly as Strasburg seemed to come back from Tommy John surgery, and as in command as he looked on Tuesday night, the Nationals have every reason to believe he can be the ace they envisioned when they picked him first overall in the 2009 draft.

Stephen Strasburg meets with the media to discuss his solid outing in the Nats’ 7-3 loss

“I will say this - and if I say it, it sounds like I’m knocking (Jordan) Zimmermann. I’m not,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Basically, with Zimmermann last year, he went through (struggles). That is the norm with Tommy John. Ask yourself: Is this guy (Strasburg) normal?”

Next year, the Nationals will have them both: Zimmermann will be without an innings limit after a stellar first year back from Tommy John surgery. But for all of his talents - and Zimmermann has plenty - Strasburg has the stuff to be a cut above him. Going into next year, the Nationals can reasonably envision Strasburg at the top of their rotation with Zimmermann just behind him. That has the chance to be a special pairing for years, but it’s Strasburg who will make it go.

On Tuesday night, there were already signs of how efficiently he used his time in the minors. Strasburg threw his fastball up in the strike zone on occasion, blowing one by Andre Ethier to end the fourth inning. He was more content to let his fastball sit between 95-97 mph, dialing it up to 99 mph when he needed something extra. His mechanics appeared smoother, and his much-discussed physique was a topic of conversation again on Tuesday; Strasburg said he weighs the same as he did before Tommy John, but he’s noticeably more toned.

And Strasburg did what he has always done, rising to the occasion on the mound and carving through the hype after the game to dwell on what’s next.

“That’s the kind of stuff that impresses me about him,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He can come in with all this media, all this attention, all the hype, paint the strike zone and nail the interview after the game. And it’s consistent. He never gets nervous. He’s just a solid, professional baseball player, and it’s nice to have.”

Strasburg will be back on the Nationals Park mound five days from now, looking to top what he did on Tuesday night. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doubts he can do it, simply because of how determined he is to reach for rare heights.

“It’s not like I was waiting 368 days for this,” Strasburg said. “I’m still on a mission here. I wanted to get stronger, mentally and physically, through this process. I had something new that I wanted to work on every single day. I didn’t waste a minute waiting for this time to come.”