Stephen Strasburg stood on the right field warning track at Nationals Park on Tuesday afternoon, just in front of the home bullpen, playing toss with a teammate. Strasburg has found contentment this spring with his abilty to blend in, and here was another moment when he looked like any other Washington Nationals pitcher. It may also have been one of the last.
Once Strasburg climbs the Wrigley Field mound Thursday afternoon for his first opening day start, the normalcy will cease, at least for a few hours. He may conform to the same routine as the rest of the Nationals’ staff, but on the mound, in his element, he still stands alone.
“Stras is special,” Nationals left fielder Mark DeRosa said. “He’s a guy that at any given time he takes the mound could do something historic. You can’t say that about but a handful of people pitching in the game today.”
The title of No. 1 starter had been reserved for Strasburg since the Nationals took him with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft and then, months later, shot fireworks off at his public introduction. It would have happened sooner had a torn ulnar collateral ligament not intervened.
When the Nationals came north last year, Strasburg remained in Viera, Fla., to continue rehab from Tommy John surgery, and he stayed there until late in the season before finally returning to the majors in early September. The memory of those days makes Strasburg grateful for Thursday’s assignment.
“It’s a huge honor,” Strasburg said. “To think where I was a year ago at this time, I really couldn’t ask for much more.”
Thursday afternoon, Strasburg will encounter several new experiences. He has never been in the majors on opening day, let alone pitched. He has never been to Chicago, let alone Wrigley Field, which he has seen so many times on television. “I’m looking forward to just seeing a packed house, crazy fans,” Strasburg said. “It’s going to be a fun time.”
While Strasburg will handle opening day for the first time, he is not new to spectacle. He spoke this spring with John Lannan, who twice started opening day for the Nationals. Lannan told him it would be awesome, an experience to remember.
“But I can tell you right now,” Strasburg recalled Lannan telling him, “it’s not going to be anything compared to what it was like for your debut.”
Every inning Strasburg throws this year will seem precious. The Nationals will limit Strasburg to 160 innings, the same precaution they placed on Jordan Zimmermann last season in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. Despite media speculation, the Nationals never considered pushing Strasburg’s 2012 debut back in order to make him last deeper into the season.
“That’s something you guys talked about,” Strasburg said, the only time he grew the slightest bit testy during a Tuesday news conference. “I don’t think that was ever discussed with the coaching staff or within the organization. So I don’t have much to say on it.”
His innings total can — and will be — a topic for another day. Strasburg will cherish the moment he walks to the middle of the diamond Thursday afternoon, the leader of the Nationals’ staff, and still, after all he has been through, only 23 years old.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran,” Strasburg said. “I’m still going to be excited and nervous and everything. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being nervous.”
More on the Nationals:
Interactive: What teams spend the most money on their pitchers?
Interactive: Most successful pitching trios in baseball history