WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Stephen Strasburg just chuckled as Gio Gonzalez wandered around with a boombox slung over his shoulder Thursday afternoon, a few hours before Strasburg was scheduled to pitch against the Mets. The right-hander doesn’t laugh much on start days during the regular season, doesn’t allow himself the luxury. But here, in the early days of March, when he feels strong and healthy and he can control every variable, Strasburg’s stoicism dissipates.
“I’m really trying to use spring training more as what it is — spring training,” Strasburg said. “It’s hard because I’m a really impatient person.”
The Nationals could decide to force some patience on Strasburg, who enters this season with eight disabled list stints in his eight-year career. Nothing is certain, but they have at least considered finding ways to occasionally skip Strasburg and will monitor his workload in a way they might not for other starters.
“We’re looking at some options, especially early on because of all the days off we have,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “But [Strasburg’s] in a good place right now. He’s throwing well and he’s throwing great. We’ll see how it goes, we’ll see how spring training goes, and see where he’s at.”
With four more off-days built into the schedule this season by the new collective bargaining agreement, and two of them during the first two weeks of the season, Nationals’ decision-makers see an early opportunity to manipulate their pitching staff. They have a history of doing so. Last season, they left Joe Ross in Syracuse for the first few weeks of the season because off-days rendered a fifth starter unnecessary.
“The off-days are nice. You like to try to keep everybody involved,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “But in the big picture, you want your best guys going all the time. It’ll be an interesting discussion moving forward with the off-days what we do.”
Strasburg has not looked like a man that needs protecting this spring. He threw 3 1/3 innings Thursday against the Mets in his second Grapefruit League outing. He betrayed frustration at close calls and a few wild pitches that bounced away from Miguel Montero. He tinkered with his two-seamer and slider, pitches he doesn’t throw much that he says nevertheless improve his more reliable pitches.
He threw 63 pitches, 39 for strikes, and struck out five. The stadium radar gun clocked him at 99 once and 97 regularly. The physical aspects of the outing point to strength and stamina for Strasburg, who finished last season healthy and began spring training without injury concern. The mental aspects reveal the part of him that has never changed, the intolerance for imperfection, the desire to have everything go just right — admirable aspirations he admits he has had to learn to temper.
“I’m not taking it easy by any means,” Strasburg said. ” … as far as what I’m sequencing and stuff, every year I just try to get better. Some things work. Some things don’t. I usually end up going back to what I’ve always done because it’s always been fairly successful. But now is the time to play with things and see if you can incorporate more things in your game.”
Strasburg has used the same tinker-when-possible approach to staying healthy. Slowly but surely, tweak by tweak, he has built himself a routine he thinks maximizes his talent. He is one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball when healthy. And he believes that dogged adherence to routine will keep him healthy enough to dominate.
“He’s a very detailed person,” Lilliquist said. “He likes the structure, which is fine.”
Strasburg was always a detail-oriented type. But after tearing his pronator tendon in 2016, Strasburg made an even greater commitment to his between-starts preparation, relying on it heavily to ensure his continued health. When he couldn’t maintain that routine while at the All-Star Game last year, he felt things slide out of sync. He experienced nerve trouble in his forearm. He landed on the disabled list. A year after deciding to sit out the All-Star Game in San Diego, he considered it a mistake to subject himself to its unpredictable rigors in Miami.
He is unwilling to compromise when it comes to treatment and his workouts. After years of injuries, he believes he knows how to stiff-arm them now. The Nationals trust that he has learned that, too.
“The kid gloves are off. They’ve been off for several years,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’ll take the ball every fifth day. He’ll be in the rotation. There’s no stipulations or modifications for him right now.”
Rizzo did admit that off-days will allow him and the on-field staff to manage workloads “strategically,” but said all five starters are on a regular program. Lilliquist admitted that he is well aware of Strasburg’s injuries, but also of his capabilities.
“You know the history and you do and you don’t [think about him differently],” Lilliquist said. “But you think he’s recovered well and you want him to give us what a number two guy does.”
Mostly, the Nationals want Strasburg to deliver the performances they have grown accustomed to when it matters most. They have considered that might mean holding him back when it matters less, and after years of analyzing injuries and his routine, he has considered exactly what he needs to give them more.
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