Strasburg, Matz on different paths
Nats righty, Mets prospect have both undergone elbow surgery
They are a pair of pitchers, both drafted on the same day in 2009. Stephen Strasburg went No. 1 to the Nationals. Steven Matz went No. 72 to the Mets.
Both had brilliant futures ahead of them. But baseball often resembles a roller coaster. There are ups, and there are downs. The road can be lined with speed bumps. The message is not to get too swept away in the peaks because there could be a valley just ahead.
There are no better examples of that than Strasburg, who could well be Washington's Opening Day pitcher next year, and Matz, still waiting to throw his first professional inning.
A year ago, Strasburg burst on the scene, blowing batters away with his 100 mph fastball. He struck out 14 batters in his first Major League start on June 8 and had 92 strikeouts in 68 innings with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts. He was on a personal peak.
And then, all of a sudden, a valley.
In start No. 12 on Aug. 21, Strasburg suddenly clutched his right elbow in obvious pain. The diagnosis was a torn ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that would require modern pitching's best friend -- Tommy John surgery. The operation was performed Sept. 3. Strasburg could forget about pitching for 12 to 18 months.
With a tendon from his thigh replacing the one in his elbow, Strasburg returned to the mound this month, one year after the surgery. He was monitored carefully with pitch counts. In his first start, he threw five scoreless innings, allowing two hits with four strikeouts and no walks. Just like that, another peak.
Strasburg called it a major milestone. He had a personal goal of making it back to the Majors in 2011, and he accomplished that. Now, with four post-surgery starts behind him, he will concentrate on staying healthy in 2012.
In his first four starts back, Strasburg had a 2.00 ERA with 14 strikeouts and no walks in 18 innings. The numbers were good, but Strasburg is still searching for the consistency that defines top pitchers.
Still, after a deep valley, Strasburg seems headed for more peaks. Matz is still looking for his first one.
Matz was a popular pick by the Mets because he was home grown, born and bred on Long Island, not far from Citi Field.
The stark difference was that Strasburg had pitched college ball at San Diego State. Matz was drafted out of high school. Both were last-minute signings, set to start their professional careers in summer 2009.
That's where their careers took distinctly separate paths. The common denominator was the elbow ache that sidelines so many pitchers.
Matz never got to pitch in 2009 and then felt that dreaded elbow pain in early 2010 and underwent Tommy John surgery on May 18, four months before Strasburg's operation. Strasburg beat the 12-month timetable for recovery by pitching in the big leagues this season. Matz was shut down in July of this year when he felt pain in the elbow again. He will try to pitch in 2012, starting again from square one.
The road has been a rocky one for the youngster. He must be patient and hope he heals properly, but he also understands that he may never make it out of this valley.
No two Tommy John surgeries are the same. Strasburg is well on the road back, headed, he hopes, for a permanent peak. Matz knows he must wait a while, still stuck in one of those deep valleys.
They are a pair of pitchers, both drafted on the same day in 2009, both with Tommy John surgery in their portfolios and both traveling down different paths since then.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.