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Dodgers lose to Nationals, await Stephen Strasburg

Pitching phenom, who electrified Washington fans last year before suffering an elbow injury, is scheduled to start Tuesday.

September 05, 2011|By Dylan Hernandez
  • Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch while playing for Class-A Potomac last month.
Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch while playing for… (Luis M. Alvarez / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington -- For the first time this season, the Dodgers will be at the center of the baseball universe for something other than their ownership troubles or the savage beating in their stadium parking lot on opening day.

Granted, they aren't the reason why Nationals Park will be packed Tuesday night.

Stephen Strasburg is.

Strasburg's scheduled start for the Washington Nationals will be the first in more than a year for a right-hander who was not long ago called the greatest pitching prospect in the history of the sport. Armed with a 100-mph fastball and a knee-buckling curveball, Strasburg electrified the fan base of a long-maligned club as a rookie last season, only to blow out his elbow and undergo Tommy John surgery.

Between the eighth and ninth innings of the Dodgers' 7-2 defeat by the Nationals on Monday, the video scoreboard at Nationals Park flashed a graphic with Strasburg's picture, Tuesday's date and the words "Strasburg Strikes Again."

Weather permitting, of course.

Rain is forecast on Tuesday and if the start time of the game is pushed back, Strasburg's start could be postponed.

"If he warms up and it rains," Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said, "we'll probably have to do it another day."

That would mean the Dodgers would miss Strasburg again, as he was on the disabled list because of shoulder inflammation when the Nationals visited Los Angeles in August 2010. His season ended later that month.

"I'm kind of looking forward to it," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said of the phenom's return.

So is outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., whose father coached Strasburg at San Diego State. Already a subject of widespread media attention in college, Strasburg was the first overall pick of the 2009 draft and signed for $15.1 million.

The younger Gwynn said he and Strasburg worked out together at their alma mater last winter.

"You wouldn't even have known he was hurt unless he told you," Gwynn said. "He's a pretty even-keel dude. He doesn't get too up or down."

When Strasburg was at San Diego State, Gwynn used to visit the Aztecs in the off-season to face live pitching. He recalled how Strasburg made a marked improvement after losing significant weight in his freshman year.

"I swung, but I didn't hit anything," Gwynn said. "Nobody gave me a heads up where he was at that point."

By that, Gwynn meant that Strasburg was learning how to pitch rather than simply throw.

And as Strasburg grew older, his velocity continued to climb. He struck out 92 batters in 68 innings last season, compiling a 5-3 record and 2.91 earned-run average in 12 starts.

Even after his elbow reconstruction, the velocity remains.

A National League scout who watched Strasburg make his final minor league tuneup for double-A Harrisburg on Thursday said he clocked him as high as 99 mph.

Strasburg sat at 96 mph for most of the night, but his fastball velocity declined to about 92 or 93 mph in the fifth and sixth innings, according to the scout.

Strasburg's dealings with the media also remain unchanged — that is, they have been limited.

Last season, he rarely granted interviews on days outside of days he pitched.

Strasburg was on a media blackout Monday.

The last time he spoke to reporters was Saturday, when he told them he would head into his first start with modest expectations.

"The bottom line is to go out there, get your innings in, build your arm strength, go into the off-season healthy," he said. "I'm not going to put any expectations on myself. I'm not going to go out there and win a Cy Young in four starts."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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