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Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg stays grounded as major league debut nears

As Stephen Strasburg's date with destiny in Washington draws nearer, teammates and fans of the Class AA Harrisburg Senators give their thoughts on the lasting impressions the pitching phenom left.

"She's my best friend," Strasburg says. "I can't imagine her not being here."

Hard as it is, Strasburg will ignore the growing reality -- that his big league call-up is only days away -- because to acknowledge that is to grow complacent, to sit back and wait for it, to treat that day itself as the goal.

"My goal is not to just make it to the big leagues and say, 'Hey, I made it to the big leagues!' " he says. "I want to have a long, successful career, and I want to help the Nationals get a lot of wins and become one of the powers of major league baseball. That's my goal."

Meeting his fellow Chiefs

The first time Strasburg walked into the Syracuse clubhouse, it was just after 3 p.m. on May 6. He wore jeans, a white polo and a shy, sheepish grin on his face. He shook hands with his new teammates. "Long time, no see," he joked to fellow pitcher Drew Storen, whose Harrisburg-to-Syracuse promotion preceded Strasburg's by a week.

On the chair at Strasburg's locker sat a U.S. Mail crate overflowing with fan mail and autograph requests.

Having already seen Strasburg victimized at least twice this year by cases of what the team considered to be stalking -- once in Viera, Fla., during spring training, and once in Harrisburg -- the Nationals were taking no chances in Syracuse, hiring two ex-Secret Service agents to guard him. The behind-the-scenes details are largely hidden from Strasburg himself -- which is the way he wants it.

"I don't want special treatment," he says. "It kind of bothers me when I get it." Then he laughs. "But that's why we have kangaroo court."

His catcher for that first start in Syracuse was veteran Carlos Maldonado, and before squatting down in the bullpen some 30 minutes before gametime, Maldonado had never caught him. Accustomed to driving broken-down Fords and sparkling new Kias night after night in the minors, he was about to get behind the wheel of a Lamborghini.

At 31 years old, Maldonado is nearly 16 years into his pro career, having signed with the Seattle Mariners as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. Other than two cups of coffee in the big leagues, with the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Pirates, his whole career has been spent in the minors.

When Maldonado and Strasburg had their standard pregame strategy session a couple hours before the kid's debut, there wasn't much said.

"He doesn't talk much," Maldonado recalls. "I just thought I'd ask him what he likes to throw, what's his strikeout pitch? I knew he threw hard, but I don't want to keep calling for the fastball. He told me likes to use the sinker, move in and out. He told me he uses his change-up and curveball in any count.

"I just said, 'All right, let's do this.' "

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