Starting opening day is something Stephen Strasburg has done before, and for him the designation becomes forgotten before the calendar flips to May. He concerns himself more with the games that come at the other end of the schedule, the kind his own team once prevented him from starting.
“I hope my career isn’t just reflected on how many opening day starts I had,” Strasburg said. “I think there’s a lot of guys in this rotation that deserve it. I’m just the first one out. Every one is going to be just as important. The biggest goal as a team is that we’re playing in the playoffs. I definitely want to focus on trying to make starts in the playoffs than trying to make an opening day start.”
The day after Manager Matt Williams completed the formality of naming him the Nationals’ opening day starter, Strasburg breezed through five shutout innings against the Tigers at Space Coast Stadium. In full command of all his pitches, including his new high-80s slider, Strasburg allowed three hits, struck out five and walked one. His fastball zipped mostly between 92 and 95 miles per hour. He threw 46 of his 66 pitches for strikes. He rarely allowed the ball to leave the infield.
“He’s right on track,” Williams said.
The start extended his excellent results this spring. In 14 innings over four starts, Strasburg has allowed just one run, striking out 10 against four walks. Focused on holding base runners and staying calm in jams, Strasburg demonstrated improved poise all spring. Thursday, Strasburg eliminated the first three base runners he allowed, inducing a pair of double plays and helping Wilson Ramos catch Nick Castellanos stealing.
“It’s not going to happen like that every time,” Strasburg said. “The biggest thing is not letting him get to second, or making it harder for him to get there. It’s amazing how it affects the game and how it affects the next pitch.”
Strasburg entered the spring with limiting base stealers as his priority. He changed his set position in order to better see runners on first base. As his work has increased through the spring, Strasburg said, he has executed his pitches better out of the stretch.
Thursday, even when Strasburg found himself in a jam, he quickly scuttled any trouble. In the first inning, Denard Span dropped a liner hit right at him, but the very next batter grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.
In his fifth and final inning, Strasburg walked Don Kelly to lead off the inning. He struck out Alex Avila with a curveball, and Austin Jackson’s double down the third base line put runners on second and third with one out. Strasburg struck out Castellanos, induced a weak grounder and walked off the mound for the last time.
“Those are the situations you want to prepare for,” Strasburg said. “The biggest thing you can really do is stick to the game plan and not let a couple bloop hits get you out of whack.”