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.