Friday, August 27, 2010

A Familiar Story

When Stephen Strasburg came up earlier this season, he took the league by storm. Whereas many young hurlers go through a sometimes lengthy adjustment period against the world's best hitters, Strasburg was immediately transcendent. He amazingly struck out 14 batters without issuing a walk in his major-league debut. As he moved forward, he continued to dominate opposing lineups, racking up strikeouts while turning in quality start after quality start. His stuff was amazing, allowing him to somehow make veteran star players look totally overmatched. The spectacle seemed like nothing I'd ever seen before.

Only, I had seen it before. In 2006, Francisco Liriano joined the Twins rotation with a similar air of dominance. In his first 12 starts, he went 10-2 with a 1.58 ERA and 83-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 2/3 innings. He wasn't quite the strikeout machine that Strasburg has been, but with his extreme ground ball tendencies, he was even more dominant than the Nationals phenom. If you don't believe me, compare the numbers.

Of course, Liriano's amazing rookie performance didn't carry the same level of hype as Strasburg, and for some good reasons. Liriano wasn't a No. 1 overall pick who'd rocketed through the minors in just a couple of months. He hadn't been widely labeled as the game's next great pitcher before he even threw a major-league pitch. Indeed, by the time Liriano joined Minnesota's rotation, he had already acclimated himself to the majors as a member of the Twins' bullpen, and had already accumulated nearly 500 innings in the minors whereas Strasburg was a 21-year-old with only 58 innings or professional experience.

Nevertheless, the devastation that struck Minnesota when it was learned late in that dazzling rookie campaign that Liriano had a torn ligament in his throwing arm and would require Tommy John surgery was eerily similar to the shock currently shaking the nation in the wake of Strasburg's own diagnosis this morning. Just like Liriano, Strasburg's torn ligament was discovered just over three months after he stepped into his team's rotation and began dominating. Just like the Twins, the Nationals will be forced to wait at least a year until their budding ace can return to action.

The blow is a little less severe for the Nationals from a competitive standpoint, as they're not tied up in a fierce postseason race like the Twins were and probably didn't have much of a shot at making the playoffs next year either. The blow to Washington's bottom line and fan base morale, however, is far more severe. Strasburg represented a shining beacon of hope for a franchise that has experienced little success in its six-year existence.

As a person who's been through this before, I wish I could offer words of comfort to those Nationals fans who are surely reeling from today's news. Unfortunately, I can't. The wait for Liriano to return to form was lengthy and frustrating. He first attempted to rejoin to the Twins at the outset of the 2008 season but struggled early on and spent several months in the minors while trying to regain his command. He ultimately returned to the Twins and pitched very well down the stretch, but wasn't the dominating force he was pre-surgery.

The 2009 season was a disaster. Liriano's control problems came to a forefront and he continually battle issues both physical and mental before finishing with a 5.80 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. It wasn't until this 2010 season -- a full three years removed from his surgery -- that Liriano has finally started to pitch like the elite starter he was prior to injuring his elbow. He showed that again last night in thoroughly outperforming one of the game's premier pitchers while helping the Twins pick up a big road victory.

That Liriano has finally returned to the front-line ace tier can be viewed as an encouraging sign for Nats fans; that it took as long as it did has to be harrowing. On the bright side, many starting pitchers have been able to make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery in a much shorter time span. Hopefully Strasburg can follow that path.

However, when I look at the stories of Strasburg and Liriano, I see a lot of similarities. For the sake of Nationals fans and baseball as a whole, let's hope the next chapter for Strasburg doesn't follow suit.


AK47 said...

Another good example of a guy who had TJ surgery and has taken longer than a year to return to form is Pat Neshek...

Kat said...

I live in DC...for a few brief, brief months people who were actually interested in talking Nats baseball with me... :(

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