VIERA, Fla. - On Jan. 31, Stephen Strasburg threw a baseball for the first time after Tommy John surgery, so what he did Thursday morning wasn't anything different than what he's been doing for the last two weeks. He played catch with trainer Lee Kuntz for about 10 minutes today, stretching out to about 45 feet before finishing with some light tosses.
But Strasburg's career, at least the early part of it, has always been as much about how other people are affected by the 22-year-old as what he actually does on a baseball field. In that sense, today was different: More than 25 media members chronicled Strasburg's throws, asking him a battery of questions about how his arm felt afterward. Players and coaches kept an eye on what Strasburg was doing, and a throng of autograph seekers waited for him after his throwing session, just like they did last year when he was a rookie with a rock star's following.
If the Nationals' fans can draw some hope from Strasburg playing catch, hey, who's to stop them?
Those making the decisions about Strasburg's next steps, though, almost went out of their way again Thursday to stress how cautious they'll be with the former No. 1 pick's progression. He'll throw throughout the spring before going on a rehab assignment this summer, and if all goes well, the Nationals would like to get him in the majors in September, a year after he had surgery. But they're keeping any best-case scenarios under wraps for now.
"I'm not going to make that plan, because I don't know what the timeline is," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We've got to be smart with this - what's great for his future and the Nationals' future, instead of, 'OK, now Stephen's good, let's go do it.' We're going to do what's best for Stephen and how he's tracking through this."
Strasburg had been working through a series of physical therapy exercises until he started throwing, including throwing a two-pound ball into a trampoline. He said it felt strange at first to be throwing a baseball, but he's at the point now where he doesn't have any apprehension about tossing a ball.
"If you saw the work that I put myself through this entire offseason, you'd understand that there's no apprehension about throwing a baseball right now," Strasburg said. "I feel good. My body is in the best shape I could have put it in this offseason."
That work did, in fact, include developing the six-pack that McCatty bet Strasburg he wouldn't have when he came to camp. Trainers worked Strasburg's legs, core, back and shoulders as much as they could this winter. But none of those results will mean much until he gets back on a mound.
It's going to be a little while until he does that. The Nationals have some sense of how the rehab can go after watching Jordan Zimmermann - their other athletic young pitching prospect - work his way back a year following surgery. Zimmermann had his operation in August 2009, so his timetable is similar to Strasburg's, but that's not a guarantee that Strasburg will come back as quickly as Zimmermann did.
And while Strasburg said his goal is to pitch in the majors this year, he knows it's far too soon to call that an eventuality.
"It's out of my control. All I can do is, like I said, is really just go out there and do the throwing program, execute the schedule," he said. "If they feel like I'm ready to go out there by the end of year and pitch, that's going to be great. It's going to be a decision they're going to have to make."