Between Juan Pierre's leadoff single in the top of the first of the season opener on Monday and Giancarlo Stanton's one-out double in the top of the seventh, Washington Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg retired 19-straight Miami Marlins in an 80-pitch, three-hit, three K performance that ranks among the best starts the '09 no.1 overall pick has made thus far in his career. The Nats' right-hander got 10 ground ball outs from opposing hitters in his seven innings of work and left the game with a 2-0 lead. When Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano wrapped things up, Strasburg had earned his 22nd win in 46 career starts. He'd pitched efficiently enough that he probably could have gone the whole way if it wasn't Opening Day and his first start of the 2013 campaign. According to Nats' skipper Davey Johnson, that's the only reason he took Strasburg out of the game after the seventh.
"Opening Day is always... it drains you thinking about it," the Nats' skipper said, "It's a long Spring. You come out there, Opening Day crowd, all the ceremonies, all the people. Originally I was going to go 90-100 pitches and he gave me 7.0 strong innings and I think about  pitches. That was it for me."
Strasburg's spoken often this Spring about wanting to go deeper into games, telling reporters just last Friday that in the past he feels he's actually gotten stronger later in games though he hasn't been able to prove it at the major league level. "I haven't gone over 7.0 innings yet in my career," Strasburg said, "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."
He wasn't tired after his first start of the 2013 campaign, but he didn't seem too upset about being taken out when he was either. "I felt great," Strasburg said after the game. "Definitely if it wasn't Opening Day and the first start of the year it would have been a different story."
"It's the first game," Nats' Pitching Coach Steve McCatty told ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan in an interview Tuesday afternoon when asked about Strasburg leaving the mound after just 80 pitches. "The bullpen, guys in there need to pitch. If he gets you seven strong innings and you have a close ball game and then you go out and a guy gets on, you're probably going to go to the bullpen anyways. So, in our [thinking] a lot of times, if you're going to get a guy one hitter, or whatever, just let that guy in the bullpen start fresh and when you have guys down there like [Tyler] Clippard or [Drew] Storen or [Ryan] Mattheus or whoever you want to pick, seven innings by any starter is really good in my book."
Strasburg didn't always react well to being taken out of starts earlier than expected last season, though Davey Johnson would admit at times to doing so in order to prolong the right-hander's first post-Tommy John season as much as possible. Strasburg also got frustrated at times with opposing hitters' tendency to jump on his fastball earlier in counts, something he and his manager noted. "Most opposing clubs are going to be setting off his fastball," Johnson said, "And they're going to try to get a good swing on that. A lot of times early in the count that's what they were doing."
"I mean, they're up there looking for something to put in play," the Nats' skipper continued, "He really didn't even -- Steve McCatty was saying, after the first inning, 'Just start these guys off with something offspeed.' But, he really felt good about locating his fastball and that's what he went with. He had an awful good one, I mean, he was throwing hard."
"I think he's just getting a little more maturity," the 70-year-old manager said, "He felt pretty good. He was nice and calm throughout the game."
"It's just really kind of getting a feel for the game," Strasburg explained, "what their approach is going to be. I noticed in Spring Training, early on, that they don't want to get to two strikes and so, I'll take the quick outs any day of the week."
"I feel like I get a lot of ground balls," the Nats' 24-year-old ace said, not just Monday, but so far in his career. "I was just throwing a fastball, locating it pretty good today."
Strasburg was pleased with the results, as was his pitching coach, who once again entered into the pitch-to-contact vs strikeout argument on ESPN980's The Sports Fix. "He was real happy," McCatty said, "I know I always talk about it, I don't care, an out is an out to me. I understand the concept that people always say that the more the ball is put in play, it has to be caught, [and] with a strikeout you don't have to make any play on it. That's fine and dandy, but if you've got fifteen strikeouts, that runs your pitch total up quite a bit. So I'll take my chances any day by guys going out, being aggressive, making them swing the bat, put the ball in play. He's going to get his strikeouts, to me that's not a big deal. If we started to have the stat where a guy has strikeouts with a runner at third base with no outs, that would be a lot more important to me, but the strikeouts are not that big a deal."
The pitcher, his manager and the pitching coach appear to all be on the same page on this one. In last Friday's pre-Opening Day press conference, Strasburg talked about sharing the burden with his teammates this year and making the game easier for himself. "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."
On Monday, at least, the Nats' starter got the results he was after.
• Listen to the rest of Steve McCatty's interview on 106.7 the FAN in D.C. below: