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Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to return to the mound at Nationals Park tonight.
Weather permitting -- and it certainly doesn't look like it's going to permit it -- Strasburg will be back on a big-league mound tonight for the first time since throwing that fateful changeup in Philadephia. The Nationals' right-hander will become merely the latest in a growing line of big-name pitchers to make it all the way back from Tommy John surgery, a procedure with a 90 percent success rate.
Having completed six rehab starts at four different levels of the Nationals' farm system, Strasburg firmly believes he's a better pitcher now than he was pre-surgery. His fastball velocity still approaches 100 mph, his curveball has as much bite as ever and his changeup is as devastating as any he threw as a rookie.
Strasburg, though, also knows what every pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery knows: There's no way to predict how these first starts back from the disabled list will go.
Even the best hurlers struggle to find a level of consistency when they return from elbow ligament replacement surgery. The feel for pitches -- especially breaking balls -- doesn't fully return for 18 to 24 months. It may show up in flashes, but it may disappear altogether.
Jordan Zimmermann experienced this very same phenomenon one year ago when he returned from Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann was roughed up by the Cardinals for five runs in four innings during his Aug. 26, 2010 return to the mound. Five nights later, he held the Marlins to one hit while striking out nine in six stellar innings.
Don't be surprised if Strasburg battles his way through a comparable period of inconsistency over the next four weeks. Not that the Nationals are concerned. This is why he's coming back now. He's healthy, and the club wants him to work some of these kinks out, putting him in position to open 2012 strong and confident.
Don't expect to see Strasburg go deep into any of his September starts, either. He's slated to throw only 60 pitches tonight against the Dodgers, which might only equate to four or five innings, tops.
This isn't going to be Strasmas II, a repeat of his 14-strikeout major-league debut against the Pirates. Really, this is just going to be a continuation of his rehab assignment.
Don't worry; Strasburg still will wow you more than once during his outing. He'll hit 99 mph with the fastball. He'll make a Los Angeles batter's knees buckle with one of those devastating curveballs.
But don't go into this outing with lofty expectations, because you're almost certain to be disappointed.
Just appreciate the fact modern medicine has allowed Strasburg to stand on that mound barely more than one year since that elbow ligament snapped. That, in itself, is worth a standing ovation when the big right-hander emerges from the bullpen around 7 p.m. tonight.