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Nationals send Stephen Strasburg to the mound vs the Braves tonight in Atlanta

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Washington Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg faces the Atlanta Braves tonight when they meet up in Turner Field in the second game of the 2016 campaign. Will Strasburg start strong this season after struggling out of the gate last Spring?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In an MLB Network Radio interview this winter, Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was asked to play a game of fill in the blank.

Stephen Strasburg's 2016 will be______?

"Outstanding," Rizzo answered.

"I think he's on the cusp of doing something special. I think that when the ankle problems were behind him -- which turned into some muscular problems in his back and that type of thing -- he pitched outstanding."

"I think that when the ankle problems were behind him -- which turned into some muscular problems in his back and that type of thing -- he pitched outstanding." -Mike Rizzo on Stephen Strasburg in 2015

Strasburg finished his sixth major league season (11-7) in 23 starts with a 3.46 ERA, a 2.82 FIP, 26 walks (1.84 BB/9) and 155 Ks (10.96 K/9) in 127 ⅓ innings pitched, over which he held hitters to a combined .233/.278/.375 line.

After the first of two stints on the DL last season, however, he was dominant.

In the second half of his sixth season in D.C., Strasburg put up a 1.90 ERA, a 2.09 FIP, eight walks (1.09 BB/9), 92 Ks (12.48 K/9) and a .177/.206/.306 line against in 66 ⅓ innings.

"He's had three outstanding years before he had that little hiccup in the beginning of 2015, but this guy is a terrifically-talented pitcher that I think has matured not only in his life but on the mound and is becoming a real leader, not only in the clubhouse, but a guy I love when he takes the ball every fifth day," Rizzo said.

In 14 innings in Grapefruit League action this Spring, Strasburg struck out 19, walked five and gave up 16 hits and five earned runs, holding opposing hitters to a combined .291 AVG. Nine of his 19 Ks came in his final Spring start.

"He had real good command and good tempo," Dusty Baker told reporters, including Washington Post writer James Wagner, before stopping himself.

"Not really. He looked like he’s ready, to tell you the truth. And at this point in time, you need to still be getting ready or at least tricking yourself that you are ready, because you have no choice."

"I think Stras is going to have a big year, a real big year," Baker continued.

Strasburg's seventh major league campaign was originally supposed to start with an outing in the home opener with the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon, but before the final exhibition game of the Spring on Saturday, Baker told reporters he decided to send Strasburg out in the second game of the season opening series with the Atlanta Braves in Turner Field.

Strasburg has struggled in the Braves' home over the course of his career, with a 4.79 ERA and a .278/.358/.457 line in 41 ⅓ innings, over which he's walked 19 (4.14 BB/9) and struck out 51 (11.10 K/9).

His one game in Atlanta last season, in his final outing of the year, was a six-inning start in which he held the Braves off the board in what ended up a 3-0 win.

"I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there and times in the game when you kind of let your focus slip just for the split second..." -Stephen Strasburg on what he learned in 2015

Strasburg talked after the start about the lessons he learned during his at-times trying 2015 campaign.

"I've learned a lot about myself through this process," the 27-year-old righty said. "I think it's obviously good to go out there with a solid outing, but I'm just trying to focus on what I can control and just give it everything I have."

What did he learn?

"I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there and times in the game when you kind of let your focus slip just for the split second and I made it a point to not let that happen and just focus on each pitch and just let everything that I've got go into that particular pitch and turn the page."

Will Strasburg stay focused on each pitch throughout what could be his final season in D.C. if the Nationals don't sign the top pick of the 2009 Draft to an extension before he hits free agency next winter?

Will the fact that he could become a free agent distract him? How will he keep it from becoming a distraction?

"It just depends on where your heart is," Strasburg explained in a February interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier.

"Why are you playing this game, and I don't think I ever played this game for the financial aspirations. We're very blessed with the salaries that we make across the board, but as a competitor, I want to win and I know every single other guy in this clubhouse wants to win just as bad as I do, so we're going to focus on that and we're going to give it everything we have and take whatever happens."

Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN that he hopes something can be worked out with Strasburg in his own interview in February.

"Stras has been receptive to it. He loves it here. He loves the fan base, he loves the city of D.C. and he, like a lot of our other players are guys that we drafted, signed and developed and are working hard to see if we can keep them here in the long-term."

Before all that talk, however, Strasburg has a start to make at 7:10 PM tonight in Turner Field.