LOS ANGELES -- Long before the emotion and drama began to build last night, Darryl Strawberry stood at his locker and discussed the mental message that a successful return by Orel Hershiser might deliver to Dodgers rivals in the National League West.
"The obvious message is that we're that much stronger," Strawberry said. "If we have the type pitching depth to move a Kevin Gross, who's on a roll now, to the bullpen, we'll be tough to beat because the offense will be there."
The message Hershiser delivered in his first major-league start since April 25, 1990, was inconclusive -- which was probably to be expected.
He had been away from the roar of a Dodger Stadium crowd, from an official competitive setting, too long for his adrenalin not to have been on overdrive, interfering with a natural rhythm.
He gave up nine hits and four runs to the Houston Astros in a four-inning stint that spanned 86 pitches. All of the runs came in a 19-minute, 34-pitch first inning that began and ended with a standing ovation from a supportive crowd of 39,127, their enthusiasm the candlelight procession accompanying what he called the miracle of his return.
He would hear the cheers again each time he left the mound, particularly after lining a third-inning single off Pete Harnisch, and he was undoubtedly not immune to the buildup, pressure and emotion of this biggest step in his comeback from reconstructive shoulder surgery.
A fan as far away as Franklin Lakes, N.J., knew what it would be like.
Tommy John, who missed a year and a half with the Dodgers after elbow surgery as radical as that performed on Hershiser, said by phone that the toughest aspect of Hershiser's return would be that it was taking place on his home turf.
"Orel will be pumped. He'll be six feet off the ground," John said. "It will be like a playoff game, a World Series game. It will be like the first game of his second life, which is what it is."
John returned from his 1974 surgery to pitch 14 more years, winning 164 more games, including 20 or more in three seasons. He cautioned against a premature judgment of Hershiser.
"I had to make a half-dozen starts before I began to feel I could pitch with anyone again," he said. "You don't want to see him cuffed around his first few times, but the important thing is how he bounces back and begins to overcome the tentativeness that is bound to be there mentally.
"My money is on him. I don't know him well, but I know he has a lot of bulldog, a lot of heart, and that's what it takes to overcome something like this."
The Bulldog showed some of his old bite with strikeouts of Jeff Bagwell and Steve Finley with the bases loaded in the first inning.
Of the Astros' six hits in that inning, four were ground balls -- a hint that the sinker is still there. Of the Astros' nine hits, all singles, it can be said that only five were hit with authority.
Hershiser is back, but is he? It is easier at this point to say what his return to form would mean -- aside from that psychological message throughout the West.
The obvious conclusion, as Strawberry noted, is that he would strengthen a staff that already leads the major leagues in earned run average and would, in time, help relieve stress on an occasionally overworked bullpen.
On the flip side, if Hershiser is unable to gain his previous form, the Dodgers face the problem of how to gracefully return Gross to the rotation and what to do with Hershiser.
How many starts, in that case, do they give him before deciding he is an impediment to their momentum and has to go on the disabled list or return to the minors -- a step Hershiser, 32, might not accept?
He is coming off four rehabilitative starts against minor-league competition, and cynics might suggest that he made another on a dramatic Wednesday night.
Five rookies are included on the youngest roster in baseball, and only three of last night's starters had faced Hershiser before.
Said one, third baseman Ken Caminiti: "I don't know if the Dodgers picked their spot, but if I was them I would have started Orel against a team with more established players so if he didn't do well it wouldn't look as bad as if he was beaten by our team."
Caminiti said it before those little Astros did beat the Dodgers and Hershiser, but the thing to remember about this night of emotion is that they beat him without beating up on him.