Injury or not, phenom has lived up to hype

The Internet poll was posted Friday morning about five seconds after news came that the rocket Stephen Strasburg calls a right arm is damaged at the elbow and will require surgery.

Will Stephen Strasburg live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival to the major leagues?

You could answer YES or NO.

The correct answer: He already has.

That he won’t pitch again for 12 to 18 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery for a torn ligament doesn’t discount the impact Strasburg made his rookie season with the Nationals.

It doesn’t erase each time a speed gun showed triple digits or the fact that in 12 starts he struck out 92 of 274 hitters. It doesn’t expunge the fact he brought to life a franchise that before his arrival was about as relevant in D.C. as that wacky Salahi couple.

Strasburg wears a Washington jersey, and yet his effect on our interest in baseball stretched across both coasts this season. He wasn’t a star player. He was an event. We love speed, and he had more than anyone else.

Nothing good comes from someone like him getting seriously injured and probably missing all next season. Nothing positive can be drawn in so much uncertainty now being included in such a promising future.

“If I keep looking for an explanation, it’s just going to eat at me,” Strasburg told reporters Friday. “I got to let it go. I’ve just got to move on. That’s what I’m doing. Everything happens for a reason. This is obviously a test for me. I’ve never had any shoulder or elbow surgery in my entire life. It’s going to be a new experience. I’m just going to embrace it. I’m going to find the good in everything.

“You look at all the guys in the big leagues who are Cy Young contenders, Hall of Famers who have had this surgery, and it’s become such a specialty these days. I know deep down inside I’m going to work just as hard if not harder than any of these guys who had to go through it before.”

OK, so he throws with an arm angle that would make the toughest of Navy SEALs queasy watching. He doesn’t have the compact motion of a quarterback-turned-pitcher, where everything is square and the release comes from behind an ear, the way they teach Little Leaguers how to throw.

OK, so any elbow not belonging to some bionic TV character or Nolan Ryan the first 25 years of his career isn’t meant to endure that much pressure thousands upon thousands of times and not eventually explode like a can of baked beans in your microwave.

But it’s not like the Nationals over-used him. Just the opposite. They protected his arm. Limited his innings. Babied his progress. The guy sneezed and they considered putting him on the disabled list.

He threw a changeup and a ligament snapped. It happens. It has happened to countless other greats.

This might be the first time in D.C. history in which there isn’t a side that deserves some level of blame.

For baseball, though, it stinks.

“Guys like that who throw abnormally hard with that much tork on an elbow, that’s a scary thing,” said 51s pitcher Josh Roenicke, his team’s hardest thrower whose fastball consistently hits the mid-90s. “I wasn’t surprised when I heard about it, but you hate seeing it. It’s horrible. You don’t take anything for granted, get your work done, try not to overthrow, stay compact and hope for the best.

“But ligament is not a good word.”

It will be repaired, and odds suggest Strasburg will return as good or perhaps better than before. Chris Carpenter. A.J. Burnett. John Smoltz. Kerry Wood. All had the surgery and returned to varying degrees of long-term success. Hong-Chih Kuo has had the procedure twice and still throws out-of-his-mind fast.

Baseball goes on, but it needs Strasburg to recover. The Nationals need it like nobody’s business, because business won’t be the same until he does.

It wouldn’t feel right if the greatest pitching prospect in history had shown his best before his 23rd birthday. Special doesn’t come along that often in sports. Not this level of special.

“The big thing, the bottom line, is this is a game,” Strasburg said. “I’m very blessed to play this game for a living. This is a minor setback, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a blip on the radar screen.”

Let’s hope so.

If not, the hype was still justified.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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