On Monday afternoon, Stephen Strasburg will take the mound at Citi Field to kick off the Nationals’ 2014 season. It is becoming old hat for the right-hander; it’ll be the third time he has been handed the ball on opening day. With familiarity, he has learned to manage emotions and the ceremony. After all, it is just the first of 162 games and, for the Nationals, hopefully more.
“Just treat it like another game,” he said. “The biggest thing is just working around the extra ceremonies and guys getting called out through the lines and everything. And if they have a flyover, they have a flyover. Just one start of many and you gotta focus on the process and the result and that’s playing your best baseball at the end of the year.”
Last opening day was one of the happiest moments, if not the happiest, of a season filled with disappointment. Strasburg fired seven scoreless innings to topple the Miami Marlins and Bryce Harper homered twice. The Nationals fell behind the Altanta Braves early and, despite a late surge, couldn’t quite make up for the early-season sluggishness. The sky-high expectations of 2013 weighed them down.
“We’ve learned a lot from the last year dealing with those expectations and obviously having a fresh new manager, definitely a bulldog there,” Strasburg said. “I think people are excited again. We didn’t finish where we wanted to be but we finished 10 games over .500 last year. I think a really good season for a lot of organizations.”
Some analysts have again picked the Nationals to win the World Series or at least reach it. Sports Illustrated, for example, put their Nationals prediction on the cover of their recent issue. Is that pressure again on the Nationals to perform with a talented roster?
“I don’t subscribe to Sports Illustrated or ESPN The Magazine, so I don’t really read that stuff too much,” Strasburg said. “I think maybe from a media perspective it can kinda change the way our club is viewed. Bottom line is that in the clubhouse we know how hard it is to even get to the playoffs on a year in, year out basis. That’s something that we’re shooting for. And you’ve seen in the years past, anything can happen once you get there. It’s not necessarily the best team on paper or the team with the best record throughout the course of the year. It’s just however is hot.”
Strasburg has yet to pitch in the playoffs. In 2012, he was on the bench because of his innings cap as the Nationals fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series. He wants to pitch in the postseason this season and has prepared himself to do so.
In his four professional seasons, he has learned to save his arm between starts. After a bad outing, he has has learned to refrain from throwing more, like he did in the past, and wearing down his arm. He has yet to reach the personal goal of throwing 200 innings in a season. He is one of the best starters in baseball, but has yet to tap into all of the potential that his talent warrants. He hopes that he will be remembered more for the playoff starts he makes, rather than the opening day ones. The Nationals hope that this is the season that he and the team reach new heights.
“I think the sky is the limit with this club,” he said.