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.