Stephen Strasburg's return to the major leagues Tuesday was another testament to how brilliantly the 23-year-old can rise to the moment. He threw five shutout innings in his first start in over a year, again surpassing the lofty expectations put in place from a staggering level of hype.
His second start of the season, though, delivered a necessary reminder Sunday: The road back from Tommy John surgery doesn't end when the rehab assignment does. And for Strasburg, it won't end this year.
With his fastball losing some sink on a muggy September day in the District, Strasburg could only get through three innings in 57 pitches. He threw 31 in the first inning, and though he settled down after that, cruising through the second and third innings in 26 pitches, manager Davey Johnson pinch hit for Strasburg in the bottom of the third, rather than have him start the fourth when he had a 70-pitch limit.
"He was irritated. He said, 'Just three?!' And I said, 'Yeah, just three,'" Johnson said. "But I expected that. I like the way he's coming along. I really don't put a lot of stock into the number of pitches. It's more whether he labored in the inning. I think that puts more stress on a pitcher than the number of pitches."
In the first inning, Strasburg said he was rushing his delivery, which made his sinker run more than drop. The Astros were able to foul off 10 pitches in the first inning, and Strasburg got to three-ball counts with the first three hitters he faced.
"We just were trying to feel him out," Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez said. "He'd just came back off rehab and we were just trying to feel him out. He'd get ahead and then he'd fall behind right away so it's not like he was just strike, strike, strike, strike, strike and we were just fouling them off. He'd throw a couple strikes and then he'd throw a couple balls so we were just being patient with him."
His velocity also wasn't as good as it was in his first outing, but Johnson said the weather was as big of a factor there as anything else - though he said pitching coach Steve McCatty "was like Mother Hen over there. He was about to have a heart attack." But Johnson equated the start to the second time through the rotation in spring training, and wasn't worried about the fact Strasburg's fastball averaged just 92.4 mph in the second inning.
The last five four-seam fastballs he threw averaged 96.6 mph, and his last pitched, which got Martinez to ground out, was clocked at 97 mph.
Afterward, Strasburg covered himself in blue body paint as part of the Nationals' annual rookie hazing. This year, all the rookies (or players who hadn't been through it before) dressed up as Smurfs; "I think I'll be the biggest Smurf anybody's ever seen," Strasburg said.
That's part of the process of coming up in the big leagues. And the rough start is part of the process of coming back from major surgery - no matter how much it seemed like Strasburg might have been immune to it.
"You go out there one day, and everything's clicking," Strasburg said. "You go out there another day, and try to do the same thing, and it's just a little bit off. It's just because you have limited reps. The more and more time I get out there, and the more and more times I face hitters, the better it's going to be."