For one day, Stephen Strasburg was back in the middle of the Nationals Park clubhouse, looking more comfortable as the center of attention than he did at any point during his whirlwind rookie season. That could be, though, because Wednesday was the last time the pitching phenom would be anywhere near the epicenter of activity for at least another five months.
After his trip to Washington for Wednesday's NatsFest, Strasburg will return to Viera, Fla., where the next, most tedious part of his rehab from Tommy John surgery will commence with far less public attention and excitement. He'll be stuck at the Nationals' extended spring training facility, playing long toss and eventually throwing bullpen sessions through the spring and into the summer, when the oppressive Florida heat settles in for its three-month stay.
It is regarded, almost universally, as the toughest part of Tommy John rehab, and Strasburg is staring down the start of it.
"It's definitely going to be tough," Strasburg said. "But I know the work I'm putting in right now is going to let me be there next opening day - hopefully pitching in it, too."
Strasburg has been under the watchful eye of pitching coach Steve McCatty and trainer Lee Kuntz all spring. He'll work with pitching coordinator Spin Williams and the team's rehab specialists now, and aside from the heat and the monotony, he'll have to fight the temptation to start throwing too hard when he feels good.
If there's anything about Strasburg's game that rivals his arm, though, it's his mental toughness. He'll get as much of a chance to test the latter as the former this summer.
"I think it's just going to be back to where I was, coming out of surgery in the offseason," Strasburg said. "I was working out by myself, pretty much. Then I got out to spring training, had a great time with the guys, really bonded with some of the new faces. Now it's back to square one. I'm just going to keep my eye on the prize, and that's getting back up here and pitching to sellout crowds."
The 22-year-old's rehab is right on schedule, and the Nationals are quietly hoping to get him back on the mound this September before he returns for all of 2012. That's Strasburg's goal, too, and he'll start a minor league rehab assignment this summer, pitching in games instead of throwing in solitude.
He'll have to go through the grind of rehab first.
"Certainly, we miss him," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But you've got to put that aside and be happy that we're seven months past that surgery. A big part of his recovery's over, so we look at the glass as half-full."