It has been a long and disappointing season for the Washington Nationals.
Their manager abruptly quit in June. Their big free-agent acquisition has been a bust. And the possibility of (another) last-place finish cannot yet be ruled out.
But hope is on the horizon. On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg will return to the mound, having missed more than a year after undergoing tendon transplant surgery on his right elbow.
This is not just any pitcher. Strasburg is fabulously talented, having arrived at the major leagues with huge advance billing in 2010, only to somehow exceed the hype. Strasburg was brilliant, racking up double figure strikeout games and generally overpowering opposing hitters, all with far more experience.
But after just a dozen major league starts, Strasburg's elbow gave way, putting his career in limbo and the Nationals' dreams on hold. After a long and tedious rehabilitation programme and a half-dozen minor league starts, Strasburg is ready to return.
"I've got a spot [in the starting rotation] open for him," Davey Johnson, the manager, said. What manager would not?
The anticipation for his return is nearly as palpable as it was for his major league debut. Fans have been speculating for weeks and weeks about the exact date of his return, creating a huge demand for an otherwise uninteresting September game for a team 25 games away from first place. Baseball has been a tough sell in the nation's capital.
Two other franchises failed and this third try seems to have come about as a result of MLB lacking any other suitable options. The Nats drew well in the first year in their new ballpark, but soon the novelty wore off and what was left was a team which was not very competitive.
The drafting, courting and signing of Strasburg was a summer-long soap opera in 2009, and his gradual ascension up the Nationals' minor league chain was followed more closely than the uninteresting performance of the parent team.
When Strasburg made his major league debut in June 2010 and struck out 14, the wait seemed worth it. Then, nearly as quickly as the excitement built, it subsided with the news that Strasburg's elbow needed surgery.
In a very real sense, the first five-plus months of 2011 have been a mere warm-up for Strasburg's return.
When he pitches, the Nationals are suddenly relevant. By having Strasburg make four or so starts in the final week, the club is getting an indication of his readiness and preparing for 2012, while, at the same time, whetting the appetite of the fan base.
And for the second time in 15 months, the fans cannot wait.