“I know you guys can count,” Baker said. “Yeah, he’s slated to start Opening Day.”
In saying those words, Baker made official what Max Scherzer’s troubled knuckle made likely six weeks ago. Scherzer’s injury trouble, now seemingly resolved, forced the reigning Cy Young Award winner to race the calendar. While he won by most measures — namely the fact that he is planning not to miss a turn through the rotation — he fell a few days short of being ready to start the first game of the season.
Scherzer started the past two Opening Days for the Nationals. The plan, at least as Baker outlined it this week, is for Scherzer to start the third game. So the Nationals settled on Strasburg, who carried an undefeated record through the all-star break last season and is hardly a consolation prize.
“Hey, that’s like having two number ones,” Baker said. “… Opening Day is Opening Day. There’s nothing better. And then you hope that day number two and number three is not a drop-off in attendance and excitement.”
Strasburg conveyed a matter-of-fact attitude about the news, which was not, of course, news to him. The 28-year-old has done this before, from 2012 to 2014. He has a 2.25 ERA in those three starts, all of which lasted at least six innings, during which he struck out nearly a batter an inning. The Nationals won all three of those games, though Strasburg, himself, got credit for just one of them.
“It’s Game 1 of 162 and hopefully some change,” Strasburg said. “So I’ll go out there and hopefully get this season started on the right foot.”
As it happens, Strasburg literally will begin the Nationals’ season on his right foot, the only one of them that will be touching the rubber before his first pitch Monday. Strasburg has been pitching out of the stretch all spring and has given no indication that he will return to the windup when the regular season begins. The change, he explained earlier this spring, helps him maintain strength and consistency through games. In the stretch, he stays on line. In the windup, Strasburg feels he is prone to mechanical fluctuations. After last season ended early because of a torn pronator tendon in his throwing arm, he and the Nationals want to minimize those as much as possible.
But other than the fact that he is no longer throwing from the windup, Strasburg has shown no lingering signs of the injury this spring. He has made four official starts and thrown another in a minor league game, giving him five overall, the same number as Gio Gonzalez had entering his start on Sunday. In other words, he is on pace with his colleagues who are not coming off injury, unlimited and uninhibited in his pitching .
Strasburg has tried to reduce his amount of throwing between starts, something he and pitching coach Mike Maddux point to as a means of keeping Strasburg healthier than he has been in recent years. After he led the National League by making 34 starts in 2014, Strasburg has made 23 and 24 starts in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“There’s something to be said for me personally that I can’t treat any one start over another as being any more important, because that’s when I start to do too much in between,” Strasburg said. “And when I start getting in that habit, I’m not giving myself the best chance to stay healthy and be there for the long haul. I just have to stay healthy, treat it like another outing and do my same routine and listen to my arm.”
But Opening Day is not just another outing and can present unique challenges to creatures of habit such as Strasburg. Pomp and circumstance disrupt the regular routine, and lengthy introductions can chill warm muscles if not planned for correctly. Strasburg said he understands those challenges and that as long as he has the schedule of events with which to plan, he will be able to work around it.
“There’s times where you go out there to pitch a game and as soon as you’re done warming up, it starts pouring rain,” Strasburg said. “You just have to learn to experience how to stay ready in those situations.”
As of Sunday, the Nationals’ plans for the rest of the week are unclear. Tanner Roark said after his start Saturday that he would make another six days from then — Friday. If that is true, he would be on turn to start again April 5, the Nationals’ second game of the season. Gonzalez, who allowed five runs in five innings Sunday, is also on schedule for that game but seems likely to get an extra day of rest and start the fourth or fifth game. Joe Ross will start the other. That part of the Nationals’ plan will become clear over the next week. For now, the first part of their plan is official, and a homegrown National will take the mound to start the season again.