It was three years ago tonight that Washington sports fans received one of those unforgettably ugly shocks. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ hard-throwing 22-year-old phenom who had struck out 14 in his debut two months earlier, threw his third pitch to the Phillies’ Domonic Brown in the fifth inning of a game in Philadelphia.
Strasburg tried to shake off the obvious pain in his $15 million right arm, but he was quickly joined on the mound by manager Jim Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty, head trainer Lee Kuntz and several teammates. The rookie had a two-hitter going and wanted to stay in the game, but Riggleman wasn’t going to risk the face of the franchise, especially since he was making just his third start since being placed on the disabled list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder.
Riggleman was smart. Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, had torn a ligament in his right elbow. Tommy John surgery would be necessary meaning that Strasburg was likely out for a year.
“It’s a new challenge,” Strasburg said before his Sept. 3 surgery. “I want to be the best at everything, and right now I want to be the best at rehabbing and getting back out here.”
To that point in his brief 12-start career, Strasburg was 5-3 with a 2.91 earned run average and a superb 92-17 strikeout/walk ratio.
A year and three days removed from the operating table and after six rehab starts in the minors, Strasburg returned on Sept. 6, 2011 against Los Angeles. He held the visiting Dodgers scoreless in five innings, allowing just two hits and walking no one while striking out four.
“It’s a big milestone I’ve accomplished,” Strasburg said. “Ever since I went under the knife, my goal [was] to be back pitching in the big leagues in 2011. I was able to do that. Now it’s all about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever for 2012.”
That is indeed what happened. Strasburg was chosen for the National League All-Star team when he had a 9-3 record and a 2.81 ERA while his average fastball velocity of 96.1 miles per hour was baseball’s fastest.
“It’s amazing to think where I was a year ago,” Strasburg said. “It’s great to see that all the hard work has all paid off.”
Strasburg wound up 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA as Washington rose seemingly overnight from seemingly permanent also-ran to win the NL East with a major league-best 98 victories.
This season hasn’t been as fun although he finally pitched his first complete game and shutout in his 56th career start last week prior to getting tossed in the second inning last Saturday night after throwing two pitches behind Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons as Washington tried to end a seven-game losing streak to its National League East archrivals. Strasburg isn’t striking out batters as often, but he has become a more well-rounded pitcher, getting more groundball outs and posting a 2.93 ERA. However, he hasn’t received much run support and so is just 6-9 for the Nats, who have been one of baseball’s biggest disappointments.
Still, in his 57 starts since his elbow was repaired, Strasburg is 22-16 with a 2.93 ERA and a 375-95 strikeout/walk ratio. And that scary moment from three years ago tonight at Citizens Bank Park is just a memory thanks to the wonders of 21st century surgery and the persistence of the right hander from San Diego.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.