VIERA, Fla. — Since we first saw Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper on their Sports Illustrated covers years ago, billed as the “best pitching prospect ever” and the LeBron of baseball, fans have waited for the day when they would emerge full-blown. What would the season look like when both were healthy, fully established and ready to lay down a 162-game baseline for their excellence?
It’s here. The pair’s first full ready-for-your-close-up season together has arrived. If looks alone could tell a story, the verdict would already be in.
“They’re driven,” Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “Just look at ’em.”
Each man says he has added 10 pounds of muscle since last season when they were already both all-stars. The change in Strasburg, as if he somehow also redirected another 10 pounds directly to his shoulders, makes your head snap. His ligaments and tendons didn’t always withstand the stresses of his old power package. What now? Nolan Ryan never looked like this.
Humans are required to possess a waist, but both these men seem determined to break that law. The pitcher and hitter, at 233 and 230 pounds respectively, look like 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3 Rodin sculptures.
How high the Nationals soar this season, and the next several as well, depends on many factors. But be honest: No element is as vital as how high the ceilings of Strasburg and Harper prove to be. And how durable they are. Both were all-stars last year. How much more can they be? Backbones of a glory era, with Strasburg under Nats control at least four more years and Harper for six? Or more than that, true greats? The verdict is as vague as the prospect of watching the answer unfold is thrilling.
Neither minces words about his immediate intentions.
“I had a decent year,” said Strasburg, who was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and the highest strikeouts-per-inning rate in baseball among starters last season. “My expectations are pretty high.”
Because Strasburg is the ultimate introvert, that’s practically a declaration of war. Asked if he was looking forward to a “normal” season with no injuries to discuss or innings-shutdown controversies to negotiate, he said, “It’ll probably never be normal. That’s all right. I understand my role.”
Clearly, he doesn’t think that role stops at 15-6. The pitcher Johnson often compares to Strasburg is Dwight Gooden. Doc was 17-9 as a teenage rookie in 1984. The next year, he was 24-4, his best season ever.
Strasburg is far older: 25 in July. Few players with such talent and hoopla have pitched so few innings by that age. He’s practically unused. Yet he’s also polished and ready to unleash. The current theory says that if you haven’t been burned out and damaged by 25, you may have a long career. Strasburg achieved the dubious distinction by accident. If he doesn’t break, he’s at the age when the great power pitchers put up monster seasons.
Harper says his only goal is “World Series.” But he lets the truth slip out around the edges: “There are [personal] goals in my head, but I’m not going to share them. People will think I’m crazy.”
What’s eating these guys, pushing them, aside from their competitive natures? Both work like demons are on their trail. Neither traveled anywhere significant in the offseason. Instead, they stayed near home and worked.
With Strasburg, the burr under his saddle is obvious: the innings shutdown. After the Nats’ last playoff loss, he did not watch another postseason pitch. “I saw enough baseball,” he said. “I drowned my sorrows playing a lot of golf.”
Day after day, he teed off on a small San Diego course by 6:30 a.m., playing alone “to work on my game” and “probably take out some anger.” In three hours, he was done and ready to really work.
“Not as much running. More strength work and core power yoga,” he said of his regimen. “Last year I was a little over-trained for running, like I was getting ready for a triathlon, not pitching.”
His diligence was so incessant he turned down a chance to play in the pro-am event at his hometown Torrey Pines because it would have forced him to miss one throwing session.
“Now I wish I’d done that. I have regrets,” he says, shaking his head at himself. “They say they’ll have a spot next year.”
“You know what’s pushing Harper,” Johnson says, pausing to grin. “Mike Trout.”
Last season at age 20, Trout had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, regardless of age. If you want to know Harper’s “secret” goals at 20, try 129 runs, 30 homers, 49 stolen bases, a .326 average and .963 on-base plus slugging. Trout-like stuff, though with more power and fewer steals.
“Last year was a long stressful season, lot of wear and tear on the body and the mind,” said Harper, who spent almost all his offseason time with his Las Vegas family and re-bonded with his dog. Yes, he sometimes acts his age. Asked if he’ll behave differently around teammates now that he’s no longer a rookie, he said, “I’m still [only] 20. I’m still that young guy out there. I’m going to keep showing respect for teammates and for other teams.
“And sick, hurt or on my death bed I’m going to go out there and give it everything I have,” he said, letting out the personality that reflects the large raccoon — or perhaps it’s a haircut — that lives on his head.
In one way, Harper and Strasburg are identical: They have boundless baseball dreams.
Every season, “there are a lot of teams that think they are the best. And they aren’t the best,” Strasburg said. “This year, there will be a target on our backs. But a little chip on our shoulders, too — after last year.”
Harper was so bummed after last Oct. 12 that he didn’t watch another postseason pitch either. “No, not one,” he said. “[On to] college football . . .
“This year, we get to try to fulfill some of our dreams, the town’s dreams, the fans’ dreams. We’re going to have a good mix on this team the next few years. For us to do something special in that city, . . . I’m getting chills thinking about it right now.”
He’s not alone. But for those chills to become reality, a lot of thrills will have to be generated by the two most gifted young Nationals. It’s easy to forget that one has just 21 career wins, the other just 22 career homers.
Bulked up and with shoulder chips in place, they look like men for the job. Soon, we will find out if they are.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
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