|Teammates congratulate Stephen Strasburg after he strikes out four in five innings of work. (US Presswire)|
WASHINGTON -- A year away, and he came back throwing 99.
A year away, and he came back with five ultra-impressive shutout innings.
A year away, and he left us certain that we don't want to wait nearly that long to see him pitch again.
Can Stephen Strasburg start again tomorrow? The day after?
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Whenever it is, we don't want to miss it.
Tuesday afternoon, when Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty compared Stephen Strasburg to Justin Verlander, he was talking about the style of pitching and quality of stuff. But there's another comparison that's just as apt.
When Strasburg is pitching, you don't look away. You make plans to watch.
Just like Verlander.
Strasburg returned Tuesday night, his first big-league start after Tommy John surgery and the 12 months of rehab that come with it. And that feeling returned.
The Nationals limited him to five innings and 56 pitches. Afternoon rain and a horrible forecast limited the crowd to nothing close to what was anticipated.
But the fastball was back. The changeup and the breaking ball, too. The command. The presence.
And the magic. Yes, especially the magic.
In some ways, this 2011 version of Strasburg is even better than the version that captivated us last summer. He says he used the year of rehab to get stronger, mentally and physically. He learned that the goal shouldn't be to light up radar guns, but to get outs and avoid giving up the solid contact that leads to runs.
But he didn't lose that magic.
So few pitchers really have it, just as so few pitchers have the Strasburg/Verlander repertoire of pitches.
It's why when McCatty was looking for a comparison, he brought up the Tigers right-hander, the American League Cy Young favorite. He used it in conversations with Strasburg, telling him that even though he can throw 100 mph (as can Verlander), he's better off not always trying to throw 100 (as Verlander doesn't).
"I want him not to learn to pitch like Verlander, but to learn to do what Verlander does," McCatty said. "It doesn't need to be 100 percent all the time. Not every pitch has to be 100 percent. He can pitch in a controlled environment at 95-96."
Most of Strasburg's fastballs Tuesday were clocked at 96 mph, but he had 99 when he needed it (for a second-inning strikeout of Aaron Miles).
McCatty's message got through, because when Strasburg spoke Tuesday night of not needing to throw 100 all the time, he said: "Look at some of the best pitchers in the game. Justin Verlander, for example."
The velocity is part of what excites us, part of what brings us back, part of what had us interested in an otherwise nothing September game between the Nationals and Dodgers. But there's more, something harder to explain, just as there is with Verlander.
"He and Strassie are a lot alike," McCatty said.
But Verlander is 28, with 104 big-league wins, two no-hitters, a World Series. Strasburg just turned 23, and Tuesday's start was just his 13th in the big leagues. He was a national star when he was still in the minors (and not just a Nationals star).
His debut last year was maybe the toughest ticket the Nationals have ever had, and with 14 strikeouts that night against the Pirates, he lived up to the occasion. Who knows what Tuesday's start would have drawn without the dire forecast (100 percent chance of rain all night, it said)?
As it was, the Nationals announced the attendance at 29,092, although nowhere near that many showed up.
Still, Strasburg didn't disappoint.
In five innings, the only two hits he allowed were a leadoff bloop double to Dee Gordon in the first, and a Juan Rivera single that went under shortstop Ian Desmond's glove in the fourth. He struck out four, but left you with the feeling that he could have fanned more if he'd wanted or needed to.
On a night when he was limited to no more than 60 pitches, with manager Davey Johnson saying he was hoping for four innings. Strasburg found a way to get through five with a lead.
"He looked totally relaxed, totally in control," Johnson said. "He made it look easy. He was special."
He is special, the way Verlander is special.
For Strasburg, this night had special meaning, because when he had surgery on Sept. 3, 2010, he set a goal of pitching in the major leagues this season. He made it, with enough time to spare that he should get three more starts before the season ends.
Good for him. And good for us, because we get to see him pitch.
"It was just fun watching him," Johnson said. "It was like he hadn't been out."
He was out for a year, and now he's back.
And now we can't wait to see him again.