VIERA, Fla. — For all Stephen Strasburg has accomplished in his brief career, his most vital ambition has been the least attainable. He struck out 14 batters in his big league game, instantly multiplied the Washington Nationals’ relevance and thrived after he received a torn ligament diagnosis. What he has not managed, despite his best effort, is to blend in.
“That’s all he wants to be,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said, “is one of the guys.”
Strasburg may finally get his wish. Strasburg appeared at the Nationals’ complex Sunday morning, the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers, delighted to begin his third spring training as, to use his phrase, “just another donkey.” No longer the biggest curiosity in all of spring training or consigned to rehab, Strasburg is simply another starting pitcher readying for the long season, albeit one expected to carry a starting rotation while being limited to, most likely, to about 160 innings.
Strasburg will take on his first full major league season with the effects of Tommy John surgery, both physical and mental, left behind in the previous 18 months. One year ago, Strasburg could throw only 75 feet or so. Now, he will perform the same daily tasks as the rest of the Nationals’ starters.
“It just feels like it almost never happened,” Strasburg said.
It took Strasburg time to reach that point. Even last year, when he mostly dominated in five major league starts, Strasburg wondered about the condition of his reconstructed elbow. “That little thing in the back of your head,” Strasburg said. “Is everything right?”
Once he began throwing this offseason, his mentality had changed. That little thing in the back of his head had disappeared. He could pick up a baseball and chuck, just like always, without any worry or second thought.
“That was the biggest thing, just taking a little bit of time off, when you go out there and throw it feels so much more natural now than it did coming off the surgery,” Strasburg said. “Just, my mind’s a lot clearer. I just go out there and throw the baseball. I don’t think about, as much, mechanics or anything, I don’t feel myself holding back a little bit. I just let it go.”
Strasburg went through a typical offseason regimen. He no longer needed extensive treatment to recover from a simple throwing session. He mixed in more yoga, which he first picked up in college, to improve his flexibility. He has started throwing bullpen sessions already, and after those he noticed an improvement over throwing sessions done after his rehab last year.
“As far as being able to bounce back from the throwing and stuff, I definitely didn’t need as much treatment,” Strasburg said. “I was still doing all my shoulder stuff, elbow stuff, just to keep it in shape. But last year I was having to do a little bit more just to make sure I was ready.”
Along with renewed health, Strasburg’s second new component this spring is normalcy. Strasburg spent his first spring training ducking constant, unwanted attention from packs of pen-wielding autograph hounds and from media that treated each bullpen sessions as a news-making affair. His second, he played light catch while his teammates prepared for the season, his recovery from Tommy John surgery months from completion.
Sunday, Strasburg seemed more relaxed than he had at any point in his previous spring training. He chatted easily with a small group of reporters, accepting congratulations on his alma mater, San Diego State, retiring his jersey at a ceremony Saturday evening. He took his turn receiving ribbing from McCatty. (Upon seeing Drew Storen’s shoulder-length locks, McCatty blurted, “Cut that [stuff] off.) He was decidedly one of the guys.
“The one thing that I really benefited from in college was that they treated me just like I was another donkey,” Strasburg said. “That’s what [my pitching coach] told me — You’re just another donkey. That’s what I want to be here. I don’t want the special treatment. I want to go out there and when they tell me to go out there and pitch, I’m going to pitch and give it everything I have. When they tell me I’m done, I’m going to be done. That’s the bottom line. I’m not going to expect anything. Everybody knows here that they’ve got to out and earn it.”
One more hurdle remains before Strasburg has left the aftermath of ligament-replacement completely behind. The Nationals will limit Strasburg to roughly 160 innings before they shut him down, like they did for Jordan Zimmermann last year in Zimmermann’s first full season after Tommy John surgery.
The innings limit could invite controversy this summer. If the Nationals win as they expect to and factor into the postseason picture, the Nationals would be faced with a pleasant, yet thorny, dilemma: Shut down their best pitcher during a playoff race or risk more strain on his arm than they had planned.
One Nationals player, speculating based on Strasburg’s competitive nature, said Strasburg would not be easily convinced to stop pitching during a playoff race. “They’re going to have to lock him in a cage,” the player said.
For Strasburg’s part, he said he will focus only on what lies directly in front him.
“I’m going to go out until they take the ball out of my hand,” Strasburg said. “Whether it’s going complete game, pitching on three days’ rest, that’s something that I’m working hard to be able to do. Not saying I’m going to do it this year, but that’s something that I’m working toward. At some point if that’s the situation, then I’m not going to expect anything less. That’s what I expect of myself. I want to go out there and answer the bell every time out.”