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September 6, 2010

On the Beat

The Long Road Back for Strasburg

by John Perrotto

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Stephen Strasburg will begin the first day of the rest of his life Tuesday morning, and we're not trying to be cliché here. The Nationals' pitching phenom will start his rehabilitation work at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, the first step in his long road back from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.

Strasburg had the surgery Friday with Dr. Lewis Yocum performing the operation and Nationals team orthopedist Dr. Wiemi Douoguih assisting at the Jobe-Kerlan Clinic in Inglewood, California. The three-hour surgery did not contain any surprises, as Yocum cultivated a tendon from Strasburg's left thigh and transplanted it into his right elbow to replace the ruptured ulnar collateral ligament.

Much of the Nationals' future is riding on Strasburg making a full recovery. They made him the first overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft from San Diego State, then signed him for a draft-record $15.1 million. It is not hyperbole to say Strasburg's major-league debut on June 8 against the Pirates at Nationals Park in Washington was the most anticipated first game of any player in baseball history, and he did not disappoint by striking out 14 in seven innings.

The plan of having Strasburg leading the Nationals back to respectability will have to wait a year, though. The 22-year-old almost certainly won't be ready to take a regular turn in the major-league rotation until the start of the 2012 season.

It would be enough to depress any general manager. However, the Nationals' Mike Rizzo is upbeat about Strasburg's future.

"I sleep well at night because I know this is only going to be a blip on the radar and Stephen will come back stronger than ever and resume on his path to having the type of outstanding career we believe he will have," Rizzo said. "I really feel it's just a bump in the road. Now, if there was a labrum tear or a rotator cuff injury, I wouldn't be sleeping so well at night. If it were a shoulder problem, I'd be very concerned."

Indeed, the recovery rate is extremely high for pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery. What gives Rizzo even more hope that Strasburg will return to become a dominant pitcher is the quality of care he will receive during his rehab.

Strasburg will start out at Scripps, near his home in San Diego. The rehab will then move to the state-of-the-art training facility agent Scott Boras provides for his clients in Newport Beach, California. Once spring training nears in early February, Strasburg will report to the Nationals' complex in Viera, Florida, and work under the watchful eye of respected veteran minor-league pitching coach Mark Grater, who oversees the organization's rehabbing pitchers.

"Stephen is going to have a lot of very good people watching over him and taking care of him," Rizzo said.

Strasburg will also have a teammate to lean on for advice and support during his rehabilitation. Highly regarded right-hander Jordan Zimmermann underwent Tommy John surgery last year on August 19.

The 24-year-old returned to the major leagues one year and one week after the operation, starting August 26 against the Cardinals and allowing five runs in four innings. However, in his second start last Tuesday, he pitched six scoreless innings against the Marlins and allowed only one hit.

"Stephen and I have talked," Zimmermann said. "Naturally, he was a little apprehensive about everything but he also knows that it's an injury and a surgery you can come back from. The most difficult part of the rehab is mental, especially the first four months when you're not allowed to throw a baseball. I told him that those four months will seem like they're forever but then the time really starts to fly once you begin throwing. A year seems like a long time but it's really not and I know Stephen, with his work ethic, will put in all the work necessary to make a strong recovery."

The Nationals had a very detailed and structured plan on how to handle Strasburg's entry into professional baseball this season after he signed too late to play last year, except for a stint in the Arizona Fall League. Yet Strasburg's golden arm still blew out.

"People ask me if I'm disappointed but I'm not," Rizzo said. "I know we did everything the right way. Nothing we did compromised Stephen's health. It's really one of those things where all you can say is 'that's baseball.' Sure, it's a bad break for Stephen and for us, but it's not the end of the world, not at all."

 ---

It's a rare September when the Angels are not involved in a pennant race. They have won the last three American League West titles and five of the last six.

However, the Angels won't be playing in October this season as they are 65-71 and 10 ½ games behind the Rangers in the division race. The Angels are stumbling to the finish line, having lost 14 of their last 20 games and have been shut out six times in that span.

"It is what it is," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "We're not playing well. It's not just offensively. It's a lot of things we're doing wrong. We're not ourselves. I'm embarrassed by the way we're playing. We can't get any run support for our starting pitchers. We can't hit with runners in scoring position—we barely get runners in scoring position. And when we do, I think maybe we try a little too hard.  We've been pretty inconsistent all year—not just offensively. It's our total game."

It is offensively where the Angels really are dead, though. Until breaking out Sunday with a 7-4 victory over the Athletics, they had scored a combined 12 runs in their last eight games and been held to two or fewer runs in 12 of their last 20 games. The Angels are averaging 4.30 runs per game this season, which ranks 21st in the major leagues and ninth in the AL.

"Some guys are having good at-bats," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Some guys are obviously struggling with some things. There's a lot of inconsistency in our offense at this point, and it's obviously reflected in us not giving ourselves a chance to win some games."

---

The Astros pretty much sealed their fate early when they lost their first eight games. However, since hitting their low-water mark of 19 games under .500 at 40-59 on July 26, the Astros have been very good, going 24-13 in that span to improve to 64-72.

The Astros have also become spoilers in recent weeks, sweeping a four-game road series from the Phillies and a three-game home series against the Cardinals. However, the Astros insist their motivation is not trying to end the post-season hopes of other teams.

"We're not thinking of being spoilers, we're not thinking of doing anything else," manager Brad Mills said. "We're kind of focused on our ballclub and getting these guys to play like they need to play and how they're capable of playing."

The Astros season seemed headed for an ugly finish after they traded right-hander Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman in late July. Instead, the Astros are in third place in the National League Central, albeit 16 games behind the Reds.

"Nobody in here thinks we're going to lose," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "If you think you're going to lose, we don't need to be here. I don't care who's on the field or who we're playing against or who's pitching. It doesn't matter. We should always think we're going to win."

---

Major League Baseball came down hard on both the Nationals and Marlins for their benches-clearing brawl last week. A total of nine people were suspended or fined, the harshest punishment being the eight-game ban given to Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman received a two-game suspension. Like most managers, he does not like fighting because of the danger of his players potentially being injured. Riggleman believes MLB could eliminate the brawls by taking a page from the NHL's rule book.

"It should be just like hockey where if you come off the bench, you're automatically suspended," Riggleman said. "That would stop it right there. If you make it where it's essentially a one-on-one fight, you have four umpires who can break that up very quickly and there would be no trouble."

---

Scouts' views on various major league players:

Diamondbacks first baseman/outfielder Brandon Allen: "He's holding his own in the outfield, especially for someone who is a big guy and just started playing out there this year. He has big-time power and the Diamondbacks can use him in the lineup. Being able to play two positions gives them flexibility. A lot of the credit for his outfield play should go to (Triple-A manager) Brett Butler because he taught the kid well this summer."

Cubs infielder Darwin Barney: "He would be stretched to be an everyday shortstop in the big leagues, but I think he could play for a long time as a utility guy. He's solid in everything he does. He's never been considered a hot prospect, but he can play."

Rangers outfielder Jeff Francoeur: "He's in the right role now as a backup. He has great athletic ability, great tools, and a great attitude, but he just has never gotten a real feel for the nuances of the game. That's held him back from being a good everyday player."

Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee: "I was sure the league would catch up to him this year in his second big-league season, but he's made adjustments. He's a good hitter. He doesn't chase pitches and he hammers off-speed pitches. Sometimes, guys just bloom late and that's the case with him."

White Sox designated hitter Manny Ramirez: "A lot of people talk like he's through, but I don't think so. He still gives you a great at-bat and he still hits the ball hard. He's going to have a big finish and really help that club. You just watch and see. If they come back and beat out the Twins (in the AL Central), he'll be the biggest reason."

Giants left-hander Barry Zito: "He's just so hard to figure. He'll go through spells where he looks the old Cy Young winner from his days in Oakland, then he'll take a step back and can't find the strike zone. The whole key for him remains getting the breaking stuff over. If he does that, he's still tough to beat."

---

Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:

Marlins (69-66) at Phillies (78-59), Monday-Wednesday September 6-8
Adalberto Mendez and Anibal Sanchez vs. Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley, 1:05 p.m. and 7:05 p.m.; Chris Volstad vs. Joe Blanton, 7:05 p.m.; Andrew Miller vs. Cole Hamels, 7:05 p.m.

Reds (79-57) at Rockies (72-64), Monday-Thursday September 6-9
Aaron Harang vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 3:10 p.m.; Johnny Cueto vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 8:40 p.m.; Bronson Arroyo vs. Aaron Cook, 8:40 p.m.; Travis Wood vs. Jason Hammel, 3:10 p.m.

Rays (83-53) at Red Sox (76-61), Monday-Wednesday September 6-8
Jeff Niemann vs. Jon Lester, 7:10 p.m.; David Price vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka, 7:10 p.m.; Matt Garza vs. Clay Buchholz, 7:10 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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