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Nationals spring training: Sleepless nights yield to giddiness

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Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg hit the grass with the rest of his team at the start of spring training. The Post's Adam Kilgore reports on Strasburg's throwing after an off-season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:16 AM

VIERA, FLA.

Washington Nationals rookie reliever Cole Kimball, who tore up the minors last year, then torched the Arizona Fall League, woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday.

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"I looked at the clock and said, 'Really - 4 a.m.? Oh, come on. There's no way I'll be able to get back to sleep,' " said the 25-year-old Kimball.

So, on the first day of spring training, Kimball was in the Nats' locker room at Space Coast Stadium at 5 a.m., four hours before the first meeting.

When Bobby Henley, the Nats' spring training coordinator, arrived at his usual ultra-early hour of 5:15 a.m., he expected to be utterly alone.

Then, behind him, Kimball said, "Hello." Luckily, Henley's heart is healthy. "Son, you're here a little early, aren't you?" said Henley.

You can't be too early when it's time for spring training to begin.

"Pitchers and catchers report" are among the most magical words in sport. They hit everybody differently. But their impact strikes everyone harder than they expect, no matter how many times they've had that first-day-of-school tingle of anticipation. It's been less than four months since the World Series, but it's felt like a drug withdrawal. Winter has intervened and left us battered, every sense longing for what baseball symbolizes: sun, warm breezes, green beneath our feet and clear blue above our heads.

Everybody has different giddy symptoms on Day One. Old coaches can't stop telling stories, as if they'd been slammed in solitary and muzzled for months. "All winter my wife tells me, 'Our TV has more channels than just MLB Network,' " said Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty. "But that's all I seem to watch."

Soon, McCatty is off on a free-association romp, discussing the pitching mechanics of Walter Johnson, 100 years ago. "He didn't finish his delivery. His right leg never came around. How do you throw 100 mph doing that?" he says.

"God said, 'You're going to throw 100.' That's how he did it," says GM Mike Rizzo.

Even I couldn't sleep Wednesday night, still out on a hotel balcony at midnight, looking up at a full moon high in a cloudless warm sky. I thought I was a little nuts. February baseball - sacrifice bunts, covering first base - shouldn't mean very much. Yet, generation after generation, it still does.


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