"I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go," Washington Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters two weeks ago today when he officially announced that Stephen Strasburg would be the Nats' Opening Day starter in Chicago for Thursday's 2:20 pm EDT season opener with the Cubs. Asked yesterday in a press conference before the final exhibition game of the season if there was ever any doubt in his mind as to which pitcher would get the assignment, Johnson responded simply, "Umm, no, and I don't think in his mind either." The 23-year-old '09 no.1 overall pick told reporters on Tuesday, "It's a huge honor," to be named the Opening Day starter, especially considering that last April he was still seven weeks away from throwing off a mound again for the first time after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September of 2010. "To really think where I was a year ago at this time," Strasburg said, "I really couldn't ask for much more."
"I worked extremely hard to get back here," the 6'4'', 220lb pound blond-haired Californian continued, "And the job isn't done. I've still got a lot to learn and it's going to be that way for a while." The former San Diego State University right-hander is right, of course. He's only 17 starts and 92.0 IP into his major league career. Over those ninety-two innings, however, he's been as good as advertised and better at times. He came back to pitch a little over a year after surgery, and though his strikeouts were down slightly (12.18 K/9 in 2010 to 9.00), so were his walks (2.25 BB/9 to 0.75) as he posted a 1.50 ERA and a 1.28 FIP in the five starts and 25.0 IP he got in at the end of the 2011 season.
The innings he got in last September were important the pitcher said yesterday. "I think it just kind of gave me a baseline," Strasburg explained, "Finishing out the year strong, coming back, I think that's realistically somewhere where I can work off of and not really go into the season not knowing what to expect or not knowing how the arm's going to be feeling. So, I think it's going to be a lot more of a comfortable transition than it would have been if I didn't pitch at all last year." As much of an honor as it is to be named the Opening Day starter, however, that was never really a goal of Strasburg's as he worked his way back.
"I honesty didn't really think about it," Strasburg said, "I mean, Opening Day, it is an honor and stuff, but that's not what I play for. You want to play for the games in October, but at the same time, hopefully we can get the season started off on the right foot and get the ball rolling." Strasburg said he'd likely meet with pitching coach Steve McCatty today to prepare for the Cubs' hitters and go over scouting reports before tomorrow's game. As a fan of the game, who's never been to Wrigley Field the right-hander said he's excited about the opportunity to pitch in such an historic park. "You see it on t.v. and just from some of the guys who've played there, some of the guys who actually played for the Cubs, I mean, it's a different atmosphere, so that's something that I'm looking forward to. Just seeing a packed house, the crazy fans and stuff. It's going to be a fun time and hopefully we go out there and get the job done."
Strasburg's 69-year-old manager, (who has 99 plate appearances and a .314/.404/.477 line in 33 games in Wrigley Field on his resume), was asked yesterday how he'd manage his starter and make sure the excitement of the day and the stage didn't become a distraction or get Strasburg too amped up. As he's said before, he's not sure he or his pitching coach will want to get too close to the right-hander tomorrow. "Let me tell you," Johnson said, "I was teammates with a guy in Baltimore named Mike Cuellar. He was the happiest go-lucky guy in the world, except the day he pitched and then he was crazy horse. I mean, you couldn't talk to him, he was grumpy, and some guys are like that. Stras is... he's like that."
"McCatty hadn't been able to talk to him," Johnson joked, "Finally they started talking a little bit. But when he's pitching, McCatty doesn't want to go near him, but some guys are like that. It's not a bad thing."
After Strasburg on Opening Day, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson (and as we learned yesterday) Ross Detwiler will form what's without a doubt the most talented rotation the nation's capital's Nats have assembled since baseball returned to Washington, D.C. in 2005, a staff Nationals' general manager said this past winter, "... is in the realm of something that we've never had here before." And that was after the Gio Gonzalez trade, before the Nats signed E-Jax to a 1-year/$11M dollar deal.
Strasburg told reporters yesterday he can't wait to compete with and against his fellow starters. "There is a little bit of competitiveness within the rotation," the pitcher admitted, "so I think it's going to help us, it's going to work to our advantage because we're going to go out there and try to one-up each other, but at the same time I think everybody knows that we're in it together and it doesn't really matter if you're considered no.1 or no.5, I think everybody knows that they have the ability to pitch and beat any team on any given day."
Stephen Strasburg will take the field tomorrow after the Nationals bat in the season's opening frame and he'll get the chance to set the bar the rest of the rotation will have to top. John Lannan, who started on Opening Day for the Nats twice, but got some unwelcome news when he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse in a surprise move during yesterday's exhibition with the Red Sox, talked to Strasburg about what it will be like on Opening Day and told the younger pitcher not to worry about it. "He just told me, Opening Day is awesome and stuff and it's going to be a great experience, but he said, 'I'm going to tell you right now, it's not going to be anything compared to what it was like for your debut.'"
Strasburg was 21 on June 6, 2010 when he debuted in front of 40,315 fans in a packed Nationals Park. The now-23-year-old starter will be making his 18th major league start tomorrow. "I have a little bit more experience," Strasburg said when asked yesterday about how he'd changed since his 14-K major league debut, "I wouldn't say that I'm a veteran out there, so I'm still going to be excited and nervous and everything, but I don't think that there's anything wrong with being nervous, it just shows that you care." Tomorrow's start and every one after that will eat away at the prescribed innings limit Strasburg will be on in his first full-year back from surgery, but the amount of innings or pitches he's allowed to throw each time out is not something Strasburg is going to worry about. "It's out my control," he explained, "It's their decision and I think that's the way I want it to be."
"I want to go out there and pitch and give it everything I have," Strasburg said, "And I know it's going to be a little different, but at the same time, I want to be like one of the other guys. You go out there and you pitch until your stuff's not working any more and then they take the ball out of your hands. That's how I want it to be." Until he reaches his innings limit, whatever it might be, that's how it will work, starting tomorrow when Strasburg throws the first pitch of a 2012 season that begins with expectations higher than they've ever been for the nation's capital's Nats.