As happy as Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg was to be on the practice field Thursday, he made one thing perfectly clear: He's in no rush to make it back to a major league mound.
The former No. 1 pick did some light tossing and also participated in fielding drills, stretching and other calisthenics with his fellow Nationals' pitchers. It was all part of his first spring workout since undergoing ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow last September.
Strasburg was sporting a leaner frame and said he's progressing well since beginning the throwing portion of his rehabilitation program on Jan. 31 near his home in California.
"It was just another day," Strasburg said of the two-hour workout for pitchers and catchers. "I felt good. I felt really good. I'm gonna just keep going from there and take it one day at a time.
"As long as there were not setbacks, I was supposed to be throwing by now. There hasn't been so far and we're all working hard to try and keep it that way."
Strasburg had his surgery on Sept. 3 and said that doctors have told him that he's still progressing within the normal 12- to 18-month rehab schedule. He said that when he started to throw two weeks ago there was an initial adjustment period.
"The first couple of throws were bad, kind of really low," he said. "Then, slowly I started to get that release-point back and now it seems like every single time I go out there my control is coming back a little better. With more throws it feels good and hopefully it keeps going that way."
That kind of optimism was everywhere, both inside and outside the Nationals' training complex.
Andrew Schilinski, a 22-year-old Nationals' season-ticket holder from nearby Melbourne, was one of the first fans to get an autograph from Strasburg as he left the field Thursday.
"I really hope he makes it back," Schilinski said. "He has a great work ethic and is really great with the fans. I think he's gonna bounce back and come back even harder. I got to see him play catch with one of the coaches and the ball was coming out of hands pretty good. I think a lot of people hope to see him out by the end of the season."
There have been both failure and success stories for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery in recent years. Kerry Wood was supposed to be the Chicago Cubs next pitching ace before he had it a year after his call-up to the majors and was never the same. But there are also success stories like Kansas City 26-year-old Joakim Soria, who returned to become an All-Star.
Washington manager Jim Riggleman said that the team is approaching Strasburg's rehab with caution and hasn't entertained thoughts about the 22-year-old not being able to return to his breakout form of 2010. Strasburg had 14 strikeouts in his major league debut last June and was 5-3 and had a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts, striking out 92 hitters in just 68 innings of work.
"I haven't gotten into any of those conversations" about when Strasburg might return, Riggleman said. "I think it's one of those things where it's not gonna do us any good to worry about it. We're gonna see where he is.
"Some guys have actually come back and felt better than they ever did before. Some guys come back the same and some guys come back and trouble with it a little bit. Only the process will tell us where he's gonna be and he'll let us know exactly how he feels and we'll see the results. We just have to try to let it play out and let those months go off the calendar and then we'll know."
Strasburg's teammate, Jordan Zimmerman, had Tommy John surgery in August 2009 and returned to the majors Aug. 26 last year. He made seven starts and had a 4.94 ERA in 31 innings. If Strasburg mirrors Zimmerman's recovery window, Riggleman said he expects he'll know whether Strasburg will be able to pitch this season.
"It's just something he's gonna have to do," Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "Zim did it last year...You've just got to hold back and you feel pretty good, but you gotta have somebody stand there and watch him the whole time and say 'cut back a little bit, take your time.' It's a long process and he's very mentally tough. And I'm sure he's gonna be fine with it."
But McCatty said he has no plans to pay Strasburg the $100 he wagered on him on whether Strasburg would show up with six-pack abdominal muscles. He said he didn't think Strasburg would have paid him the $100,000 he bet McCatty if he'd lost.
"I can't say, obviously, that the better shape you're in it's gonna help you," McCatty said. "But, like I told him, I'd rather have a fat winner, than a skinny loser."
Strasburg is ready for whatever is next.
"It's out of my control," he said. "All I can do is really is do the throwing program, execute the schedule. And if they feel like I'm ready by the end of the year and go out there and pitch — awesome, that's gonna be great. But that's gonna be a decision they're gonna have to make."