MIAMI - Stephen Strasburg passed through the final phase of his return from Tommy John surgery on Wednesday afternoon, ending a seven-month process that started with him doing some light tossing on a back field in Viera, Fla., some 180-odd miles from where his year ended on Wednesday.
Strasburg spent much of the year in Florida, taking his first tedious steps back from surgery and seeing if his new elbow ligament would respond well enough to accommodate his goal of returning to the majors just 12 months after surgery. When he walked off the Sun Life Stadium mound on Wednesday, having dropped a curveball beneath Jose Lopez's bat for his final pitch of the 2011 season, the message was as clear as it's been all month:
The most remarkable thing about Strasburg's six-inning, 10-strikeout performance in the Nationals' 3-1 win over the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon was how effortless it seemed. He threw his curveball more effectively than he had in any of his four other starts after surgery, which brought back the strikeout stuff he hasn't had most of the month.
"I've been searching for it the last month," Strasburg said. "I wasn't going to be too hard on myself, just knowing that it's a pitch I really started throwing at the beginning of July. It's something that's just reps and feel. It's going to be there for spring training."
Manager Davey Johnson said he didn't have Strasburg on a pitch count on Wednesday, and could have sent him back out for a seventh inning. But with nothing left to prove, Johnson pulled Strasburg after 79 pitches, turning the game over to the Nationals' bullpen to preserve Strasburg's first win of the year.
Now, he'll get a whole offseason to rest before starting his first full year in the majors after surgery. He'll be on an innings limit next year, much like Jordan Zimmermann was this season, but he'll also be expected to be the ace of a rapidly-improving staff, and he'll likely be on the mound on opening day next year at Wrigley Field.
"Somebody came up with this idea that, 'Well, maybe you'll save his innings if he's only the number four on this club,'" Johnson said. "How could I do that? You guys would run me out of town."
And if Strasburg's arm responds as well to rest this winter as Zimmermann's did last winter, he could be on the precipice of something truly special. He struck out 24 batters in 24 innings this month, posting a 1.50 ERA and walking just two batters. And he did most of it without effective command of his curveball - which is probably his best pitch - until Wednesday.
He's likely going to get better. And if that's true, his performance on Wednesday was a teaser for what has the chance to be an epic summer.
"Now he's going to be in preparation for spring training mode, instead of rehabilitation mode," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's the little spiel I've given everybody here - prepare for next year, come to spring training hungry, to win a job or to improve on this year. That's the mindset that we have."