Few Washington Nationals are looking forward to the 2013 season as much as Stephen Strasburg. When the right-hander arrives in Viera, Fla., in two weeks for spring training, he will be anticipating the first full season of his young career, all restrictions lifted.
Asked about his offseason in a telephone interview Monday night, Strasburg’s response was telling: “It’s been a month longer than everybody else. I’m [champing] at the bit.”
Strasburg, 24, went through various stages of coping after he was shut down on Sept. 8 after 159 1/3 innings. He was angry and defiant at first, saying immediately after his final start, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest.” Nearly a month later, he was more subdued, admitting that time had helped him accept it, and even relenting that his late-season inconsistency was perhaps because of the innings increase from the previous year. Four months later, it still lingers — but less so.
“It’s still kind of a sore spot, to be honest,” he said Monday. “I wish it didn’t end up the way it did. But I can’t really worry about it anymore. The season’s over, and I don’t think anybody else on the team is playing the ‘what if’ scenario anymore. It’s all about looking to the future and looking into this coming season and preparing for that.”
Strasburg says he is already throwing bullpen sessions and feels great. His body is stronger and his right arm is well rested, more than 28 months removed from his Tommy John surgery. Golf and his recent charity event have kept him busy. And he has had time to reflect on his 2012 season, which the Nationals ended it in the heart of a pennant race out of concern for the long-term health of his surgically repaired elbow.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, the decision-maker on the shutdown, and Manager Davey Johnson watched Strasburg closely last year, particularly late in the season when the right-hander’s performances were inconsistent.
“I know there were obviously times during the season where I think [Johnson] tried to protect me a little bit more than other guys,” he said. “And I’m excited to have a little bit more of a leeway to be able to go out there and work through tough innings and go back out there when I’m feeling good, and not necessarily worry about pitch counts every time or the grand scheme of things like an innings limit.”
While Strasburg wouldn’t attach any specifics to his personal goals for next season, the Nationals are hoping he can hit 200 innings.
“I want to be the guy that can go out there and go at least seven, eight innings every time out,” he said. “I want to be the horse in the rotation that everybody can really rely on and is going to get that consistent starter.”
Because of California’s budget cutbacks, Strasburg helps supplement the baseball team’s shortfalls with funds raised by the event. He hopes it will help with their travel budget, field maintenance and improvements to the baseball facilities.
Nearly 1,000 people participated in the event this year, slightly fewer than before because of the poor weather on the day of the event. Strasburg is awaiting a final tally on the amount of money that will be donated. Unlike past years, he didn’t run in the event and instead waited at the finish line, high-fiving the first finishers and presenting the awards.
After he was shut down following a bad start against the Miami Marlins, the Nationals allowed Strasburg to play catch. But after the season ended, they wanted him to rest. After Christmas, he started playing catch again. He threw his first bullpen session Friday and the second Monday, his close friend and college battery mate Erik Castro catching.
“I think I’ve made huge strides this offseason as far as building strength,” Strasburg said. “I’m kinda starting to notice my body changing and I’m starting to mature a little bit more as I get a little bit older.”
Talking from San Diego on Monday, Strasburg sounded relaxed and comfortable. He has rested, spent time playing golf, and even followed Tiger Woods closely on his round Sunday at the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines. Pitching coach Steve McCatty has called every month to check in. Strasburg has copies of the film on every one of his starts from last season, has pored over them and picked up on his flaws.
When he was throwing well, he was relaxed on the mound, his mechanics were fluid and he “didn’t necessarily come out guns blazing, trying to throw the dirtiest pitch every time.” He struggled when he allowed his mechanics to slip and didn’t adjust.
“The big thing that I want to change is not to necessarily hit the panic button when it happens,” Strasburg said. “Instead of just to try and throw harder and generate more spin on breaking balls or more movement on the change-up, to really just take a step back and get back to basics of just pitching to contact and really just letting our great defense do their job.”