Saturday, March 19th, 2011

A Season Without Strasburg: A Year Without Baseball's Young Star


He mowed down a franchise record 14 batters in seven innings of work while allowing only two earned runs. He made the game look effortless as he picked up his first career win at the expense of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The pitcher's name was Stephen Strasburg and he made the Washington Nationals relevant. Not bad for a major league debut before a crowd of 40,315.

Prospects are plentiful. Every fan base can claim they have the next big thing in their farm system, but in reality, they don't. Some prospects break into the big leagues and become solid players. Others become journeymen who never maximize their potential and bounce from team to team. Then again, some simply fade away. On rare occasion, a player emerges on the scene surrounded by resounding hype and fanfare. So much that all eyes around the big leagues - both management and fans - are fixed upon him. Last year, that happened in our nation's capitol.

The Washington Nationals finished the 2008 regular season with a record of 59-102. They finished 32 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East. When the June 2009 Major League Baseball Draft arrived, the Nationals found themselves with the first overall pick. They selected Strasburg, a junior from San Diego State University. Almost one year to the date later, he donned a red and white uniform and stood atop the mound at Nationals Park prepared to deliver his first pitch to Andrew McCutchen.

He picked up another win in his second start at Cleveland, and a no-decision in his third at home against Chicago. He struck out eight Indians, and 10 White Sox respectively. With 32 strikeouts after three starts, he established a major league record. Was this 21-year-old for real? Questions were raised if he was eligible for the All-Star Game in July. Charlie Manuel, manager of the NL All-Star team, opted not to give Strasburg a spot on the NL roster for the mid-summer classic.

During his final two starts in June, he tallied his first two losses. The first came at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. Despite pitching six innings, and surrendering only one earned run, the Nationals failed to generate any offense. The Atlanta Braves delivered a second blow when they beat the Nationals 5-0. Strasburg gave up three earned runs over six-plus innings. Then the calendar flipped to July.

July started with another no-decision against the New York Mets. Not a bad start, but it was the shortest of his rookie season. He only pitched five innings. Between July 9 and July 21, Strasburg picked up three wins in three consecutive starts against the San Francisco Giants, Florida Marlins, and Cincinnati Reds. In those three starts, he logged six innings twice against the Giants and Marlins, and 5 2/3 against the Reds. Just when Strasburg seemed primed to take the next step, the injury bug snuck in. Inflammation in his right shoulder forced the Nationals to place Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list.

On August 10, he returned to face the Florida Marlins in Washington. Two starts prior, he faced the Marlins in Florida. He pitched six scoreless innings. In the rematch, the Marlins did not make the same mistake. Strasburg lost his third game of the season while giving up six earned runs and striking out a season low four. Five days later, he returned to the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Again, he pitched five innings and fanned seven. He left the game with the score tied 3-3. The Nationals scored once in the seventh, and once in the eighth to win the game. Strasurg left the game with another no-decision.

When the Nationals traveled to the City of Brotherly Love on August 21, they grabbed an early lead against the Phillies. They scored three in the first, and two in the third. With a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning, Strasburg left the game with a forearm injury.

On August 24, he was once again placed on the 15-day disabled list. A few days later, on September 1, he was transferred to the 60-day DL. Strasburg's 2010 season was finished. The Nationals announced that Strasburg had torn his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. When word of surgery broke, it meant the 2011 season was lost. Or most of it anyway.

Jim Riggleman, manager of the Washington Nationals, hung his head. He had witnessed this before in Chicago. Certainly, memories of Kerry Wood crossed his mind.

Just like that, his season was finished. As Strasburg walked off the field, his numbers were complete. He finished with a 5-3 record in 12 starts. His earned run average was 2.91 and hr tallied 92 strikeouts.

Now Major League Baseball looks toward a season minus one of its brightest young stars. In Washington, D.C., attendance spiked on days when Stephen Strasburg pitched. It even spiked around days he might have pitched. A city that was somewhat indifferent toward its National League franchise did care on days when Strasburg pitched. He has been working out with his team during spring training, but Tommy John surgery generally requires a 12-18 month recovery time. If his recovery and rehabilitation continues without any setbacks, Strasburg could return to the mound in September when rosters expand from 25 to 40.

When he returns to action, what type of pitcher will he be? Will he return to form and never skip a beat? Will he be like Kerry Wood and leave so much hype and potential untapped?

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