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Strasburg's 'big milestone': 5 scoreless innings in 1st start since Tommy John surgery
WASHINGTON (AP) ' The notion of Stephen Strasburg coming back better than before? Seemed almost too good to be true for a Washington Nationals franchise so accustomed to misfortune.
Rest assured, Strasburg looks as good as his word.
In his first major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 2011 edition of Strasburg was every bit as impressive as the 2010 version that wowed the baseball world. The 23-year-old right-hander allowed two hits over five shutout innings Tuesday night before the bullpen blew the lead in the Nationals' 7-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"It's a big milestone I've accomplished here," Strasburg said. "It's something that ever since I went under the knife, that was my goal to be back pitching in the big leagues in 2011. I was able to do that. Now it's all about getting stronger, staying healthy and being better than ever for 2012."
Last year's magical days of "Strasmus" came to an abrupt end when the 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick felt his elbow pop on Aug. 21 in Philadelphia. His long road back began when he had the now-familiar, career-saving ligament replacement surgery a few weeks later on Sept. 3.
He then wound his way through six minor league rehab starts with four teams in four states over the last month, culminating with a return to the majors that was easily the most anticipated event of the season for a Nationals club trying to avoid a fourth consecutive last-place NL East finish.
"He didn't skip a beat," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "It's an asset to the organization, a guy like that."
Strasburg's lost year appeared to evaporate from the moment he started his walk from the bullpen to a standing ovation, albeit from a small crowd because of the daylong rains that threatened to postpone the game.
When it came time to play, the weather put itself on hold for the pitcher wearing jersey No. 37 and those gotta-love-'em traditional high red knee-socks. The radar gun again registered in the high 90s. The 90 mph changeup remained almost unhittable. The main man himself downplayed his accomplishments, as he always does, while his manager, teammates and opponents exhausted their supply of superlatives.
"He was outstanding. He looked totally relaxed, totally in control," manager Davey Johnson said. "He had all his pitches working. He made it look easy. Real low pitch count. Looked strong at the end. ... It was just like he hadn't been out."
His workload carefully monitored, Strasburg threw 56 pitches, 40 for strikes. The fastball peaked at 99 mph. He struck out four, didn't walk a batter, and a string of 11 retired in a row ended when Juan Rivera was generously given a hit for a ground ball that went under shortstop Ian Desmond's glove.
"The game seemed it was in slow motion out there," Strasburg said. "From what it felt like in the debut last year, I felt I'd kind of been through it before, so I was definitely a lot more relaxed out there, really focusing on just trying to execute pitches and get guys out."
Strasburg emphasized again he is much stronger than before, having spent his year conditioning the rest of his body.
"It's not like I was waiting 368 days for this time," he said. "I'm still on a mission here. I wanted to get stronger, mentally and physically, through this process. I had something that I wanted to work on every single day. I didn't waste a minute waiting for this time to come, because I knew it was going to come sooner or later."
Strasburg was set to get the win when he departed with a 3-0 lead, but the Dodgers tied it in the sixth. Then even Mother Nature gave up on the game, at least temporarily, as the rain returned in the seventh to force a 31-minute delay and empty the ballpark of all but a hardy few.
Those that remained saw Rod Barajas' two-run double in the eighth inning off Henry Rodriguez (3-3) put the Dodgers ahead for good, giving Kelly Jansen (2-1) the win.
"A sigh of relief ' when you get a guy who's cruising in the game out because of a pitch count," said Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier, who struck out on a changeup in the second inning.
Strasburg even scored his first career run, part of a three-run second inning. He reached by laying down a sacrifice that turned into a two-base throwing error. Strasburg wound up at second on the play, went to third on Desmond's single and came home on Jayson Werth's groundout.
Of course, there was no way Strasburg could match his major league debut, when he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates on June 8, 2010. He finished 5-3 as a rookie, with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts.
On Tuesday, fans filtered in as the game went along and the rain held off, but Nationals Park was never more than half-full despite the announced attendance of 29,092 ' well short of the expected sellout.
Sensing Strasburg's night was nearly done, the crowd was on its feet with two outs in the fifth. Strasburg rewarded them by getting Justin Sellers to foul out to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on a 97 mph fastball. Strasburg then headed toward the dugout, where he was greeted on the top step with a handshake from Johnson.
"I thought we were a little anxious ' a little jacked up," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "This kid's got a good arm, but you see good arms all the time."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP