HAGERSTOWN, MD - When I emailed the Hagerstown Suns director of communications about getting a credential for Stephen Strasburg's first rehab appearance on Sunday, he responded by saying, "You're all set, thank you for covering the circus." I knew it was going to be an event, but I didn't realize just how much of a zoo it would be until I got there.
I arrived two hours early, just to be sure, and I still had to park at what looked like an abandoned mental hospital that was a 10-minute walk away. A stadium that normally sees about two or three hundred fans per game was filled to capacity way more than an hour before the game. The general scuttlebutt among the assembled media was that they had let in about 500 fans over a sell out. Every single seat was full, and people were standing three deep in all of the concourses.
Just to make sure they got a shot, everyone with a camera lined up outside the clubhouse more than a half hour before Strasburg emerged for the first time. I'm not sure it was intentional, but the staff brought him out of a different door of the clubhouse than everyone was expecting and he ended up sneaking up behind the line of cameramen, who then had to scramble to get their shot. He looked like a rock star leaving a venue through a group of fans, both overwhelmed and slightly put off by all the attention he was getting.
While he was warming up and playing long toss, everyone tried their best to analyze his delivery and whether or not the elbow appeared to be bothering him, as if any of us knew what we were looking for or if long toss even tells you anything. But his first pitch of the game lifted all doubt. He might not be all the way back, but he was as back as anyone could reasonably expect him to be in this stage of his rehabilitation.
His first pitch drew a standing ovation from the crowd, who was just happy to see him back on the mound doing what he does best. Even though it was his first competitive action in almost a year, nobody seemed surprised that he struck out his first batter. His focus in this start, per the request of the team and the training staff, was to establish his fastball. The heater sat between 95-97 miles per hour, reaching 98 once in the first inning according to the Suns' radar gun. His offspeed stuff will probably take some more time to come back, but when he did throw something other than the heater, it had some pretty nasty bite. Once it was clear that he was pitching without much restriction, the focus shifted from what he was throwing to the fact that he was throwing it at all. Everyone was just happy to see him out there.
He gave up three hits and a home run over 1.2 innings pitched and struck out four of the eight batter he faced. When all was said and done he got another standing ovation when Suns manager Brian Daubach took him out of the game. That was it. As quickly as it had come, Strasmas 2011 was over in just about 25 minutes. He was relieved by another top prospect in the organization, A.J. Cole, but that didn't stop people from leaving the stadium after catching only an inning and a half of baseball.
By the time the second game of the double header kicked off, Strasmus was officially over and the stadium held only it's typical crowd of a couple hundred people. He's going to throw again in five days, but nobody knows which level of the organization that will come a, and which city you will be able to find him in. But Stephen Strasburg is back, he is pitching very close to what we remember and that is very good news for everyone, whether they reside in Hagerstown, Harrisburg, Potomac or Washington D.C.