No one wanted to talk to Stephen Strasburg as the 2012 season opener with the Cubs in Chicago's Wrigley Field approached. Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson compared the then-23-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick to a former Baltimore Orioles teammate, Mike Cuellar. "He was the happiest go-lucky guy in the world," the Nats' 70-year-old skipper said of Cuellar, "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."
Nationals' pitching coach Steve McCatty hadn't been able to approach his starter to talk about the first start of the year, though he did eventually get a chance to pull the pitcher aside. "Finally they started talking a little bit," Johnson joked, "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."
Strasburg began the 2012 season fully aware of how things would end, though he'd later say he hoped all along that the people making the decisions would change their minds. "I want to go out there and pitch and give it everything I have," Strasburg said before making his first start last April, "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."
Strasburg's first full post-Tommy John surgery season ended on September 7th, with the right-hander (15-6) with a 3.16 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 48 walks (2.71 BB/9) and 197 Ks (11.13 K/9) in 28 starts and 159.1 IP over which he was worth +4.3 fWAR. Forty-five starts into his career, the most hyped pitching prospect of the last decade is (21-10) with a 2.94 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 67 walks (2.40 BB/9) and 313 Ks (11.21 K/9) in 251.1 major league innings.
Strasburg's 46th major league start will take place on Monday afternoon in front of a sure-to-be-sold out crowd in Nationals Park where the Nats take on the Miami Marlins in the first game of a three-game season opening series. In an interview with a hometown radio station this winter promoting his yearly fundraising run supporting the San Diego State University baseball program he pitched for in college, Strasburg said he looked forward to pitching in front of his adopted hometown this season:
"We have some of the best fans in the country there in D.C. A lot of them have stuck with us through thick and thin, and obviously last year was a huge year for the organization and we are definitely moving in the right direction. It’s so much more fun when you are playing in front of sell-out crowds every night."
On Opening Day 2012, Strasburg gave up just one run on five hits in seven innings against the Cubs. Strasburg's line that day: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K's, 82 pitches, 58 strikes, 7/4 GO/FO.
This year he'll be starting the defense of the Nats' NL East crown in the nation's capital. "I don't think it's any different than any first game of the year," he told reporters on Friday. "Adrenaline's going to kicking in. Mechanics probably aren't going to be where you want them to be and it's going to be a little uncomfortable out there, but that's where you've just got go out there and pitch and trust your stuff and get to a point to where you can kind of assess where you're at and build off of that."
As impressive as Strasburg has been thus far in his career, his manager said he's still learning like any other pitcher his age who's yet to pitch a complete season at the major league level. "I think in all young pitchers," Johnson explained, "they keep learning more about themselves and what they can do and how opposing hitters react to their stuff, and he's still learning. He's still a babe in the woods, as are a lot of my starters. But, I think the biggest thing this year, he feels fine. He's got the shackles off him. There [are] not going to be any restraints on him as there have been over the last couple of years."
Some of those restraints were imposed by the Nats' skipper himself, who admits to having sometimes lifted his starter early in order to get the most out of the innings and pitches that Strasburg was allowed to throw in his first full-year back. "Last year, I mean, I was a little quicker with the hook because I was trying to add some -- a game, at the end," Johnson explained, "I don't feel under the gun to do that. I'll go what I think I can get out of him and not over-burden him, because he's going to be around for the end-game, as is everyone out there."
Though there won't be any innings limits, pitch limits and no ending starts early to prolong the season as long as possible, Johnson did say that he'll bring all of his starters along slowly. "I dial it back on a lot of my starting pitchers early, whether he's young or old," Johnson said. The decisions on when a pitcher is done will be made by a manager with 16 years of experience on the bench who knows what to look for to determine when to turn to the bullpen.
"There [are] no restrictions on anybody and each of them is... you handle them a little differently as far as when their pitch counts getting up there," he said, "But mostly I just read pitchers and if I see stuff coming up, if I see the curve ball staying up, if I see the hitters getting on him pretty good, I generally make a change then."
Washington's Opening Day starter said he's comfortable with the person making the decisions on the Nationals' bench and appreciative of the environment Johnson's created in the Nats' clubhouse. "I think it's great having a manager that has 100% faith in all his players," Strasburg said, "And regardless, if you go out there and have a bad game, you know he thinks you're the greatest thing since sliced bread. It doesn't really matter what you did that day, but you know you're going to be in the lineup the next day and you're going to have an opportunity to succeed."
The right-hander is excited to get back on the mound in games that count though he knows it's going to be a little different this season. The Nationals aren't going to sneak up on anyone. "I'm excited," Strasburg said, "I think I've learned a lot so far and this is going to be a good test for us because there's obviously a target on our back this year, so it's a little different when you've got every team coming in stepping up their game to try [to] beat us."
"We're in uncharted waters right now and I think we've got a great group of guys and we're all pulling for each other, so we've just got to stick together and realize that much like last year there's going to be some ups and downs and we just have to weather the storm."
Strasburg and most of his teammates have been there before. "I think we're excited," the pitcher said, "much like any year, when you start the season any team can make the run, and we're all in the same spot. So it's really kind of -- they all say it's a marathon, but you also have to get a good start out of the gate and the games matter just as much in April as they do in September."
Strasburg agreed with his manager's assessment, however, and told reporters he knows that he still has a lot to learn. "Absolutely, I think I'm 24 years old," he said, "I mean, it's my first opportunity to pitch a full year in the big leagues and I'm still learning how to do it and there's a lot of great guys in the clubhouse like I said and in the rotation and obviously having [McCatty] there as my pitching coach, I've learned a lot from him and I think it's really going to help me throughout the year."
"It's going to be a good test for me, obviously. I haven't gone over 7.0 innings yet in my career, so I know in the past when I've been allowed to do that I feel like my game has gotten better later on in the game and I think there's -- the hitters change their approach later in the game, and it's going to be interesting to see how the game changes in the later innings when you're still out there because I still haven't experienced that yet."
Strasburg's goals this year, as he's explained this Spring, include staying on the mound longer each time out and becoming a more efficient pitcher. He's got some ideas about how to go about achieving those goals. "I think the game gets a lot harder when you're out there trying to do everything yourself," Strasburg said, "I'm guilty of it at times, I try to go out there and strike everybody out, and just kind of put the team on my back and like I said, do everything. But when you give your teammates an opportunity to do what they practice every single day, fielding ground balls, catching fly balls, hitting your cutoff man, it's amazing how much easier the game gets for the pitcher when you just use your defense."
Pitch to contact. Pound the strike zone. Trust your defense. Become more efficient. Go deeper into starts. It's an approach Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and other Nats' starters have been talking about for years now. And the Nats' ace said he knows he wants to implement the strategy though opposing hitters don't always allow it, but he feels he's close to where he wants to be after getting through his Grapefruit League starts.
"I think there was a lot of games where I went out there and my pitch count was really low going up [to the] fifth, sixth inning and then it just got to the point where they don't want me to go out there and go eight or nine innings in a Spring Training game," Strasburg explained. "So, I'm still learning and I think I'm starting to pick up some things that help me be able to do that every time out. But, like I said, there's some days where you're just going to have really good stuff and they're going to be fouling a lot of pitches off or swinging and missing. There's going to be games where you're giving up a lot of hits and you have to go out there and battle if there's always guys on. So, the biggest thing is going out there and filling up the strike zone and taking what happens."
Strasburg sounds ready. He said he's prepared to start a run at the postseason knowing he'll be on the mound if the Nationals can make it again and he's able to put everything in perspective. It all starts at 1:05 pm EST on Monday. "I know I'm going to be mentally locked in and that's the biggest thing," Strasburg said, "I mean, this is going to be an exciting Opening Day, have a huge crowd probably and I just [have] to soak it all in much like pitching at Wrigley last year, I mean, not too many people out in this world get an opportunity like that."