Stephen Strasburg, healthy and ‘one of the guys,’ might be baseball’s best pitcher

The third act of Stephen Strasburg’s nascent career has been the most fun. The “craziness,” he said, is gone. No one sticks a camera in his face each time he emerges from the dugout. He and his Washington Nationals teammates have come to know and like each other. Before games, he sprints around the outfield shagging flies and tries to hit more batting practice homers than his fellow starters. “It’s nice feeling like one of the guys,” he said.

The suffocating scrutiny has diminished. His rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery has expired. Strasburg no longer is a rookie trying to handle expectation or a victim of a torn elbow ligament.

“I feel like I’ve proven that I can do it,” Strasburg said. “Now it’s just almost old news. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It just shows that everybody expects you to do that.”

Strasburg’s season will grow complicated in late summer, when the Nationals likely will remove their ace from their rotation, possibly during a pennant race. That moment will be a reminder of his scars and the high stakes his ability creates for his health, but it remains months away. Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Strasburg, 23, will make his seventh start this season simply as one of the best pitchers in baseball, maybe the very best.

“I think right now, yeah, he is,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “There are guys who are more accomplished. If you want to win a game right now, who do you want? There’s no doubt.”

Strasburg, named the National League’s pitcher of the month for April, has a 1.66 ERA, 38 strikeouts and seven walks in 38 innings. His curveball defies physics. His change-up darts like a balloon losing air. After hitters see Strasburg’s fastball, catcher Wilson Ramos, says, “They say, ‘This [guy] throws hard.’ ”

Says Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth: “On the mound, he’s a killer. A cold-blooded killer.”

‘He cuts your heart out’

On June 7, 2009, the night the Nationals drafted Strasburg with the first overall pick, General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “He’s certainly in the team photo of best guys I’ve seen.” Now that Strasburg has put his full talents on display, Rizzo has amended his evaluation.

“I think he’s better than the guy we drafted,” Rizzo said. “I think he’s a better package than what I envisioned that we drafted. This guy knows how to pitch. He knows how to prepare. He is focused like the elite pitchers that I’ve been around.

“He’s got the face of a choir boy. And he cuts your heart out.”

Strasburg has still blended into this Nationals’ season, no longer their biggest curiosity. Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old drafted first overall the year after Strasburg, is the one handling cameras in his face, the endless hype. His own experience helped to steel Strasburg.

“Through time, I understood I didn’t need to prove to anybody anything,” Strasburg said. “Originally, when I first came up, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to show everybody that I’m the real deal and that I am everything that everybody has been saying.’ I pushed a little bit harder out there to do the things I was capable of.”

He also happens to be a pitcher younger than 25 in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, which, in the Nationals’ opinion, introduces a chance they will not take. The Nationals gathered the best medical consensus they could and reached an ironclad conclusion: After Strasburg reaches a yet-to-be-determined innings limit, he will stop pitching, like Jordan Zimmermann did a year ago in a similar situation. It is “a cloud over my head,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

Rizzo has “general parameters” for when the Nationals will shut down Strasburg but, “I don’t know a number,” he said. The Nationals held Zimmermann to 160 innings last year in his first full season following Tommy John surgery. Johnson has said the Nationals will limit Strasburg to the same number, but Rizzo said otherwise.

“That’s not a number in concrete,” Rizzo said. “It’s going to be a unique decision. It’s not going to be tied to Jordan Zimmermann.”

Strasburg may throw more than 160 innings, but Rizzo said, “If he goes every five days, he’s not going to last to the end of the season by the calendar.”

‘All in this together’

Strasburg has not commented on the issue, he said, because Nationals officials have not discussed the limit with him. One teammate said, “They’re going to have to lock him in a cage” in order to keep the highly competitive Strasburg from pitching in a playoff race. Strasburg admitted he would be disappointed, but also expressed his intention to play for a team that competes annually, not just this season.

“We’re all in this together,” Strasburg said. “If it does come to that, it would be tough. But I know that we have a lot of people, a lot of doctors that have a lot more education than I do about injuries like this. I know they have my best interest at heart, so I’ve got to trust what they want me to do, just roll with it. What we’re trying to build here is not just a team that tries to win it for one year. We’re trying to build a team that can be in contention every single year.”

Circumstances changed the Nationals’ plan for Harper. Could circumstances also change the Nationals’ plan for Strasburg? No, Rizzo insists. Development is one thing. Health is another. If the Nationals reach late August in the midst of a playoff race and Strasburg has reached his limit, he will pitch no more. For them, there is no quandary.

For Scott Boras, Strasburg’s high-profile agent, the issue is simple: “You’re following medical advice,” he said. “Everyone would have great regret if the career of a player would be harmed for not following medical advice. Those on the outside can make a lot of assumptions for a lot of reasons.”

Still, the debate about Strasburg’s limit will surely rage once the time comes, just as the debate about what led to Strasburg’s torn ulnar collateral ligament in the first place. Critics have pointed to Strasburg’s mechanics. Johnson has theorized Strasburg overthrew, trying to light up radar guns with the baseball world watching.

Last week, sitting in the Nationals’ dugout, Strasburg revealed his own take.

“I think what led me to get hurt was not being in as good of shape,” he said. “When you’re only throwing five innings in the minors and then you come up here and throw 90-something pitches your first game, and then expect to do that every five days, it’s a big adjustment. You look at what I was used to in college, we were done at the end of May. It was a long year. I needed to be in better shape than I was in college, and I can say I wasn’t in as good of shape as I was in college. I think that’s what led to breaking down and having a serious injury.”

Strasburg focuses on improved conditioning, varying his workouts. He studies hitters’ tendencies and swings. Mostly, he is left alone.

The craziness is gone. His rehab is over. And what the Nationals are left with is one of the very best pitchers on the planet, a person they like and a commodity worth protecting.

“If he stays healthy,” Werth said. “That will be the deciding point if he’s a good pitcher or the best pitcher.”

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