Stephen Strasburg spent the last 11 months doing more than just rehabilitating his elbow. He spent it getting himself in better shape.
If anything, that should make him an even more powerful pitcher than he was as a rookie, a daunting prospect for National League hitters in years to come.
The Washington Nationals' most prized possession was on target and up to speed Sunday in his first rehab start since Tommy John surgery. Twenty-five of 31 pitches were strikes, his fastball was in the upper 90s, and he struck out four while allowing one run over 1 2-3 innings for the Class A Hagerstown Suns in a 7-5 loss to the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
"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."
More telling is the fact that Strasburg says his delivery is feeling better than it did pre-surgery.
"It honestly does — I get on top of the ball a lot better. I'm able to drive the ball down into the zone a lot better, a lot more efficiency," he said. "Before, I just wasn't in as good a shape. ... I think the biggest reason I broke down is because I just got tired. I wasn't necessarily prepared for a full season."
The 23-year-old right-hander hadn't faced a batter in a live game situation since grabbing his right wrist following a pitch to Dominic Brown of the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 21, 2010. Strasburg had elbow reconstructive surgery Sept. 3, ending his rookie season with a 5-3 record and a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts, including an unforgettable debut in which he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Since then, he has meticulously worked through milestone after milestone in a long, lonely recovery. He began throwing a baseball again in February. He started throwing off a mound in May. Then came simulated games at the Nationals' spring training complex in Viera, Fla., starting last month.
"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."
Strasburg expects to make another start in the minors Friday, but even he doesn't know where. His goal is to return to the Nationals in September, a realistic goal barring a setback. Even then, he feels his speed and control won't be where he wants it to be.
"Come spring training next year, that's where I think I should be back to normal," he said.
Strasburg struck out half of the eight batters he faced Sunday and didn't throw a ball until his ninth pitch. The Nationals had decided ahead of time that he would throw a maximum of two innings or 35 pitches. He stuck mostly to his fastball, and the fact that the Grasshoppers knew it was coming accounted for their modest success: three hits, including Jacob Realmuto's opposite-field home run in the second inning.
"I knew they were all looking for fastballs," Strasburg said. "He put a good swing on it, can't really worry about that too much. I'm not even going to stress about it."
The game came 28 years to the day that Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer made the first of two rehab starts at Hagerstown, an event commemorated by a plaque at Hagerstown Municipal Stadium. Palmer pitched five innings and got the win on Aug. 7, 1983.
Strasburg's appearance was likewise a marquee event. Fans packed the stands at the old ballpark, and the Nationals issued a 500-word set of media guidelines that was almost Olympian in detail.
The star attraction arrived about three hours before the game. He emerged from a car and walked directly into the small clubhouse without acknowledging the two dozen fans who had formed an orderly line hoping for an autograph or at least a wave, par for the course for a player who hasn't embraced the trappings of celebrity.
"I'm aware of it. Not to be rude or anything, but it's really not that important to me," Strasburg said. "My goal as an athlete is to go out there and win. It's great that people come out and support me and stuff. I appreciate the fans; they make it a lot of fun for me and the other guys out there, but my job is to go out there and beat the other team."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP