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AMERICAN ATHLETE OF THE WEEK: Stephen Strasburg, The Comeback Kid (4/15/12)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher, Stephen Strasburg. Photo by Cathy T.

On Monday, 23-year old pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg picked up a victory for his 8-3 NL East-leading Washington Nationals. While he struggled in the sixth and gave up two runs, Strasburg looked unhittable for five innings and lit up the radar gun with 95-98 mph fastballs. The victory capped a lengthy comeback from a devastating injury that derailed the career of one of baseball’s most exciting young stars.

Strasburg appeared destined for stardom mostly on the reputation of his fastball. He was the number one overall pick in the 2009 draft and signed a record-breaking four-year $15.1 million contract with the Washington Nationals. ESPN called Strasburg the “most-hyped pick in draft history,” while Sports Illustrated described him as the “most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball.” Surprisingly, the kid with the killer arm learned to play baseball from his grandmother, who even worked on pitching with him. He also considers her one of his biggest inspirations. “I always dreamed of playing in the major leagues ever since my grandma played catch with me in the backyard,” he recalls with pride.

Given his record signing and the ensuing publicity, fans flocked to Strasburg’s minor league stints with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators and Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. The Senators even set an attendance record in Strasburg’s April 2010 home debut where an estimated 70 credentialed members of the media attended the game. ESPN also broke into scheduled programming to broadcast—nationally—the half innings in which Strasburg pitched.

The following month, Strasburg’s Triple-A debut drew 13,000 fans—the highest attendance for a baseball game in the 130-year history of the sport in Syracuse. But the 21-year old didn’t crack under the intense scrutiny. He finished his overall minor league stint with a 7–2 record, an impressive 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 13 walks in 55⅓ innings.

Despite such overwhelming attention, Strasburg appeared to remain grounded. “I haven’t done anything yet,” he acknowledged. He wound up getting that opportunity soon enough. Strasburg made his major-league debut on June 8, 2010, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although the odds that he’d live up to such high expectations were against him, he did not disappoint. The rookie fire baller pitched strong and deep into the game—seven innings to pick up the win. He allowed two earned runs and struck out a team record 14 batters—one short of the all-time MLB record for a pitcher’s debut. Remarkably, over one-third of Strasburg’s pitches that day were clocked at 98 mph or faster, including two that reached the 100 mph mark.

Strasburg followed up his spectacular premiere with two more strong starts in which he struck out eight and ten batters respectively, setting a major league record for the most strikeouts in a pitcher’s first three starts with 32. But his dream rookie season soon became a nightmare when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament severely in August of 2010.

Despite the setback, however, Strasburg was determined to return to form. “I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to get back out there and show everybody what I bring to the table,” he said staring down Tommy John surgery and 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation. He had finished his short season with a 5-3 record and 2.91 ERA. Strasburg was also named a pitcher on the 2010 Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team.

Last spring, while his Washington Nationals teammates prepared for the 2011 regular season, Stephen Strasburg was alone in Florida rehabilitating his surgically repaired elbow. “You feel like you’re on your own separate island when you’re rehabbing [from an injury],” said Strasburg, describing his feelings of isolation—what he also characterized as baseball withdrawal.

“When you’re out there fighting together as a team, pulling for each other and picking each other up, that’s what I love about this game.”

Strasburg returned to the major leagues last September after six successful rehab starts in the minor leagues, and couldn’t have been happier. “To really think where I was a year ago at this time—I really couldn’t ask for much more,” he said with a smile. “I worked extremely hard to get back here. And the job isn’t done. I’ve still got a lot to learn, and it’s going to be that way for a while.” Strasburg finished the 2011 season 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in five starts. However, despite his much-anticipated return, the Nationals’ postseason prospects had already evaporated as the team struggled to remain near .500.

This season represents a fresh start for both the team and their young star. After his strong 2-0 beginning, which has propelled his team to a division-leading record through eleven games, there’s no question that Strasburg is back and ready to fill the record books.

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