For 11 months, the young Washington Nationals pitching star has been floating in uncharted waters after suffering an elbow injury. On Sunday, he reached land — the little hump of dirt called the mound at Municipal Stadium in a 1 2/3-inning, 31-pitch performance as the starting pitcher for the Hagerstown Suns against Greensboro before 5,758 fans.
The numbers — eight Grasshopper batters, four strikeouts and 24 strikes — didn’t mean as much to Strasburg as ending the long wait for the chance to pitch again after having elbow ligament replacement surgery on Sept. 3, 2010.
“Patience, that’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life,” Strasburg said. “I want things to just happen. I’ve been waiting 11 months — there’s not much more to go.
“(It was frustrating) being away from the team and not feeling like I was part of it. I wasn’t getting paid for doing what I do.”
Strasburg earned his pay Sunday as he brought an overflow crowd to the stadium on the 28th anniversary of Jim Palmer’s first rehab start in Hagerstown. That electricity translated to his work on the mound as he showed off a 95-98 mph fastball, mixed with a few curveballs to challenge Greensboro’s hitters.
“I was super-excited to get out there,” Strasburg said. “It’s been close to a year since I faced another team. I went out there wanting to throw fastballs. It was the real foundation I wanted to set before I go out there to pitch again. I wanted to work on my fastball command. All in all, I was pretty pleased.”
After being greeted by a standing ovation, Strasburg went to work.
The Nationals’ and baseball’s first overall selection in the 2009 draft struck out Noah Perio on an inside breaking pitch to end a four-pitch sequence. Marcello Ozuna went down in three pitches on a high fastball.
Christian Yelich grounded a single to right before Mark Canha was retired on a nifty play by first baseman Brett Newsome to end the 16-pitch inning.
“When you’ve got the adrenaline going out there, you don’t really know how you’re going to feel as far as being able to throw the ball where you want to throw it,” Strasburg said. “I went out there and it seemed like once they said ‘Play ball,’ I kind of just got that feeling back real quick.”
Greensboro stretched Strasburg out in the second as Jacob Realmuto connected for a one-out home run over the fence in right field to give the Grasshoppers a 1-0 lead.
“I knew they were all looking for fastballs,” Strasburg said with a laugh. “He put a good swing on it, can’t really worry about that too much. I’m not even going to stress about it.”
Daniel Black followed with a single to center before Strasburg struck out Ryan Fisher to end his day. Strasburg left to another standing ovation as he was lifted by Suns’ manager Brian Daubach after his 31st pitch.
He was not scheduled to throw more than 35 pitches for the first start.
“I wanted to keep going,” Strasburg said.
But Strasburg and the Nationals know there will be another day. The plan is for the 23-year-old right-hander to pitch every fifth day as if he is in the starting rotation. The stints will get longer but he admits he doesn’t know where he will make his next appearance.
It’s just big that he does, especially after all the work.
“I felt strong,” Strasburg said. “I’m right where I want to be at this part of the season. I’ve worked real hard to get in shape.
“I broke down because I got tired. I wasn’t ready for a 162-game season. I learned a lot and I’m in better shape to throw 200-plus innings a year.”
Since his surgery, Strasburg has set the goal to be pitching for the Nationals in September this season. Sunday didn’t make that a sure thing, but it is few strokes closer.
“My arm feels great. My velocity and my pitches were better than I thought they would be,” he said. “As long as I keep working hard and end the season healthy, the 2012 season could be a lot of fun.”