Strasburg past the hype, ready for healthy season

After dropping down a few bunts in the batting cage, Stephen
Strasburg strolls over to a back field to take part in some
fielding drills.

He walks with his head down, avoiding eye contact but not going
out of his way to keep from being noticed. Still, he breezes right
past dozens of Washington Nationals fans, who seem oblivious to
being in the presence of a national phenomenon from just two years
ago.

Remember when everyone had a severe case of Strasanity?

Here was this big kid with the 100 mph fastball, blowing away
big league hitters in the nation’s capital not long after leaving
college. Then, suddenly, he was gone, sidelined for part of one
season and most of another after blowing out his right elbow.

”At that age, you feel invincible,” Nationals general manager
Mike Rizzo said Tuesday, standing on one of the practice fields
next to Space Coast Stadium. ”Then you’ve got to tell a guy,
`You’re going to have Tommy John surgery and miss an entire year of
your career.’ It’s tough.”

Distraught at first, Strasburg got through the rehab and
returned to make five starts for the Nationals at the end of last
season, not quite as dominant as before but still better than
most.

This year, he’s really ready to shine.

The hype? He’ll gladly cede that to someone else.

”I think my family and friends enjoyed it more than I did,”
Strasburg said at his locker after a two-hour workout. ”I was just
so thankful to have the opportunity to accomplish my dream of
pitching in the big leagues. I accomplished that. Now, I’ve got to
move on to the next step: staying here and being successful.”

The spotlight, it would seem, has been turned on another
Nationals player of enormous potential. Sure, Bryce Harper has yet
to play a game above the Double-A level. Even so, there’s already
plenty of fans at spring training wearing his No. 34 jersey, eager
to get a glimpse of the 19-year-old outfielder who followed
Strasburg as Washington’s second straight No. 1 draft pick and
brashly proclaimed his intention to claim a starting job.

”That’s just the nature of the beast,” Strasburg said. ”He’s
kind of going through a little bit of what I went through. But it’s
understandable. I don’t expect there to be hype my entire career.
Hopefully, it’s more about expectations – and hopefully high
expectations – because I perform well. I’m good dealing with my own
expectations.”

The 23-year-old Strasburg is fully recovered from his surgery
but still under some limitations. Taking no chances with such a
national treasure, the Nationals won’t let him pitch more than
about 160 innings this season, trying to ensure he doesn’t
re-injure himself. Also, they’ve assembled a much deeper rotation
around him, acquiring Gio Gonzalez (16-12) and Edwin Jackson
(12-9).

”The biggest thing this year is going to be eliminating the
type of hype Stephen had two years ago,” Washington shortstop Ian
Desmond said. ”Our rotation is so good, it’s not fair to the rest
of the guys for Stephen to be singled out. I think he’s just going
to be a nice addition to our staff.”

The Nationals also have Jordan Zimmermann (8-11), John Lannan
(10-13) and Chien-Ming Wang, a two-time 19-game winner with the New
York Yankees before injuries sidetracked his career.

”They’re all going to help each other,” Desmond said.
”Stephen is such an accomplished kid. He’s accomplished so much in
his life already. He may have something to offer to the other guys.
But I think guys like Edwin might have something to offer Stephen.
I think they’re all going to feed off each and I definitely think
all of them are going to benefit, maybe Stephen more than anyone
else.”

Make no mistake, though, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg is
the one expected to lead the Nationals’ rotation for the next
decade or so. After a brilliant career at San Diego State and a
stint on the U.S. bronze-medal team at the 2008 Olympics, he was
drafted by Washington and agreed to a record $15.1 million,
four-year contract just ahead of the signing deadline.

In his first minor-league game with Double-A Harrisburg in 2010,
ESPN broke into its regular coverage when he was on the mound.
Within two months, Strasburg was called up by the Nationals,
perhaps the most-celebrated pitching prospect in the history of the
game. He certainly did nothing to lessen the expectations, striking
out a team-record 14 Pittsburgh hitters in his major league
debut.

Strasburg made a dozen starts that season, with dominating
results. He was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, striking out 92 in just 68
innings. More impressive for someone of his size who throws so
hard, he had only 17 walks.

”He’s a big, strong horse of a kid with terrific stuff who can
still pound the strike zone,” Rizzo said. ”He has remarkable
command with remarkable stuff. That’s what separates him from a lot
of other hard-throwing, big-bodied pitchers.”

Once he got over the shock of being hurt, Strasburg began to
absorb some valuable lessons. He knew he needed to get stronger and
maintain a more diligent, consistent workout program, so his
mechanics would hold up over a long season. He also realized that
it wasn’t necessary to strike out 14 or 15 hitters every game, that
he might be better off getting an infield grounder on a first-pitch
changeup that going for the strikeout with three 100 mph
fastballs.

Coming back last September, his strikeout ratio was down (24 Ks
in 24 innings) but he allowed only 15 hits and two walks.

”He has a better idea of how to pitch. Every pitch didn’t have
to be with maximum effort,” Rizzo said. ”I think the mental side
of his game increased last year. That will help the physical side
of his game.”

As for the hype, someone else can take that.

Notes: Nationals OF Jayson Werth skipped Tuesday’s workout
because of muscle spasms in his back. Manager Davey Johnson does
not think the injury is serious enough for Werth to miss any spring
training games, but decided not to take any chances. Werth was
among several Washington players who attended Monday night’s
Daytona 500 NASCAR race. … LHP Sammy Solis, one of Washington’s
top pitching prospects, will need Tommy John surgery and is out for
the season. He was in camp as part of the accelerated development
program, but pain he first experienced a couple of months ago in
the Arizona Fall League returned during a throwing session last
Friday.