You expected all the flags in the nation's capital to be lowered to half-mast given how hard the city—and the entire baseball map, really—took last week's announcement that Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg will undergo Tommy John surgery, and possibly miss the entire 2011 season, after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. But Strasburg's injury shouldn't be mistaken for a national tragedy; it's just a delay in his arrival as the best pitcher in baseball.
Tommy John surgery, once the three most dreaded words a pitcher could hear, has become almost a sure thing. (Roughly 90% of hurlers who've undergone the procedure have come back at or close to their preinjury level.) Thus, odds are overwhelming that Strasburg, who struck out 92 of the 274 hitters he faced in the majors, will return in 2012 as the pitcher he was in '10. One in nine pitchers on active big league rosters today has undergone the procedure, including 10 of the 33 at this year's All-Star Game. On the same day that Strasburg faced reporters in Washington, 24-year-old Cardinals lefthander Jamie Garcia—an NL rookie of the year front-runner who had Tommy John surgery following the '08 season and sat out '09—shut out the Nationals over 51/3 innings and lowered his season ERA to 2.33.
Depending on the speed of Strasburg's rehab, the Nationals will have the option of sitting him out for the 2011 season (and the four off-season months) or roll him out as early as next September for a limited number of low-pressure starts. (Josh Johnson, the Marlins' 26-year-old ace and a top four NL Cy Young candidate, had Tommy John surgery in August '07 and was back on the mound within 12 months, throwing harder than he was before the procedure.) Whatever they choose, the Nationals must decide whether Strasburg's delivery needs to be overhauled. The righthander throws with what scouts call an inverted W motion, in which the elbows rise above the shoulders, culminating in a whiplike action producing violent stress.
It will be a long year for Nats fans, but when he returns, Strasburg will be 23, his prospects undimmed.
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