Strasburg past hype, ready for healthy season

VIERA, Fla. (AP) — 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.