Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals’ opening day day starter


(Paul Sancya/AP)

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson named Stephen Strasburg the Washington Nationals’ opening day starter this morning, sending the 23-year-old phenom to the mound in Chicago against the Cubs less than two years after Strasburg underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Strasburg said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s just one game. Hopefully the games will be mattering at the end of the year for us.”

Pitching coach Steve McCatty delivered the news to Strasburg this morning. Johnson had come to the decision back in the winter, and “it was easy,” Johnson said. Strasburg will be limited to 160 innings this year, but Johnson never considered delaying Strasburg’s start to stretch out his season.

“I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go,” Johnson said. “It’s not about Stephen Strasburg. It’s about the Washington Nationals. I’m going to put our best foot forward every step of the way.

“Everything in my baseball mind says pitch him where he belongs to pitch. And if you’ve got to shut him down, shut him down. End of story.”

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will pitch the second game of the season, and he will likely be followed by Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and either Chien-Ming Wang or John Lannan, depending on Wang’s health. If the Nationals stay in line, Gonzalez would likely pitch the home opener April 12 against the Cincinnati Reds, with Strasburg making his first home start April 16 against the Astros.

Strasburg said he had never been to Chicago, let alone Wrigley Field, one of baseball’s shrines. He looks forward to experiencing “all the history” at the park, he said.

The Nationals had other, more veteran candidates to start opening day. New additions Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez have both been all-stars. But Strasburg was the obvious choice, no matter how the Nationals analyzed the question.

“When I look, there’s some guys that have some more time than Stephen,” McCatty said. “But when you look at what he brings out there, he’s the prototype No. 1 starter. That’s the guy you’re going to send out there to start the season.”

While Johnson came to the conclusion Strasburg would pitch the opener back in December, he kept the decision under wraps all spring. At one point, he coyly hinted that he could envision giving Gonzalez the opening day assignment. Johnson wanted to keep pressure off Strasburg, a harsh critic of himself, as he went through his first spring training as a full-blown major leaguer.

Strasburg had shown no signs of strain as he pitched in Grapefruit League exhibitions, but Johnson believed he was over-throwing, too “amped up” for the spring. Last night against the Mets, Strasburg allowed one run on two his in five innings, pitching with more precision and less nervous energy.

“He settled down last night,” Johnson said. “He showed me the kind of pitcher he is. Had much better location. He pitched, in a nutshell. I was real happy with that. Ergo, I’m making the announcement. Now’s the time.”

Strasburg said he “absolutely” hoped he would start opening day. The Nationals have come to know Strasburg's competitive side, and it applied even for the opening day nod.

“He wants to be that guy,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He wants to throw 200 innings and win 20 games.”

Strasburg becomes the fourth Nationals opening day starter since baseball returned, joining Livan Hernandez, Odalis Perez, John Patterson and John Lannan. Johnson believes the decision sends a message simply anointing a staff ace.

“Every little aspect goes into that,” Johnson said. “It’s an honor. It’s something that a lot of people perceive that he’s earned. … I don’t think you’ll find anybody in there who’s envious he’s No. 1. They all know.”

Strasburg will open this year after he closed the last. On the final day of the 2011 season, Strasburg struck out 10 Florida Marlins in six innings. Making only fifth major league starter after surgery, Strasburg unveiled a glimpse of all he can be, the reason why the Nationals tabbed him to start opening day.

“I still have this lasting impression from his last game in Miami,” McCatty said. “The guy’s a No. 1 starter.”

More on the Nationals:

Boswell: Harper in center field makes sense

Top-of-the-order hitters need to improve

Rodriguez still dominant

Smooth sailing for Strasburg

Rizzo explains his Harper decision

Nats-Mets updates

Lee County wants to negotiate with Nats

Updates on Storen, Morse, Wang

Ankiel returns to lineup

Spring training heats up

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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