VIERA, Fla. — It happened Wednesday morning in a quiet corner of the Washington Nationals clubhouse, a nondescript place for an anointing. Pitching coach Steve McCatty approached Stephen Strasburg to talk about Strasburg’s performance the night before, how he had felt and what he saw. At the end, McCatty informed Strasburg he would be starting opening day for the Nationals.
The assignment — opposing the Chicago Cubs on April 5 at Wrigley Field — came less than two years after Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery. He has conquered the rehab and made an exultant return, and now he can take his rightful place atop the Nationals rotation, the spot reserved for him for since the Nationals drafted him with the first overall pick in 2010.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Strasburg said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s just one game. Hopefully the games will be mattering at the end of the year for us.”
Strasburg, 23, turned several questions from reporters about the designation toward his fellow starters, including new additions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. “They’re all very capable of starting that game,” he said. But Strasburg’s ability, his raw power combined with pitching finesse, made him an obvious choice for the Nationals.
“When I look, there’s some guys that have some more time than Stephen,” McCatty said. “But when you look at what he brings out there, he’s the prototype No. 1 starter. That’s the guy you’re going to send out there to start the season.”
Manager Davey Johnson had come to his decision back in the winter. “It was easy,” Johnson said. Strasburg will be limited to 160 innings this year, which led some to wonder if the Nationals would manipulate the beginning of Strasburg’s season to stretch out his starts. Johnson, though, never considered delaying Strasburg’s start.
“I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go,” Johnson said. “It’s not about Stephen Strasburg. It’s about the Washington Nationals. Everything in my baseball mind says pitch him where he belongs to pitch. And if you’ve got to shut him down, shut him down. End of story.”
Gonzalez will pitch the second game of the season, and he will likely be followed by Jordan Zimmermann, Jackson and either Chien-Ming Wang or John Lannan, depending on Wang’s health. If the rotation stays in line, Gonzalez would likely pitch the home opener April 12 against the Cincinnati Reds, with Strasburg making his first home start April 16 against the Houston Astros.
The Nationals’ clubhouse greeted Strasburg’s opening day assignment with uniform approval. Gonzalez called him, “the right man for the job.” Lannan, who pitched opening day in 2009 and 2010, said Strasburg “deserves” the honor.
“It’s something that a lot of people perceive that he’s earned,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody in there who’s envious he’s No. 1. They all know.”
Strasburg said he had never been to Chicago, let alone Wrigley Field, one of baseball’s shrines. He looks forward to experiencing “all the history” at the park, he said.
With opening day comes a myriad of distractions, from the butterflies to the bunting. No matter the attention surrounding Strasburg’s opening-day start, though, it could not equal the avalanche of hype that surrounded his 2010 debut, or several other Strasburg appearances.
“He’ll handle it,” Lannan said. “He knows how to handle those situations. You’ve got to control the adrenaline, and I’m pretty sure Stras is going to do that.”
Strasburg will join Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, Odalis Perez and Lannan as Washington’s opening-day starters. The list defines the difference between the season’s first pitcher and a No. 1 starter, and Strasburg falls into the latter group.
Nationals reliever Chad Durbin pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 2006, the year Justin Verlander turned 23. When he arrived at Nationals spring training this year, Durbin noticed parallels between Verlander and Strasburg, on and off the mound. Anyone can see they throw 100-mph fastballs and physics-defying curveballs. Durbin sensed other similarities that allow both pitchers to not just dominate, but also to set the tone for an entire staff.
“Justin was always working out, running harder, faster than everybody else,” Durbin said. “A lot of guys just hit cruise control when they’re that talented. Stephen sure doesn’t do it. He’s got a little edge to him on the mound. Justin has that, too. These guys, if they don’t like the way a guy is taking a swing or something — I’m not saying they’re throwing at him, but they’ve got that little bit of edge.”
While Johnson came to this conclusion in December, he kept the decision under wraps all spring. At one point, he coyly hinted that he could envision giving Gonzalez the opening day nod. Johnson wanted to keep pressure off Strasburg, a harsh critic of himself, as he went through his first spring training as a full-blown major leaguer. Tuesday night, Strasburg threw his best game yet.
“Now’s the time,” Johnson said.
Strasburg said he “absolutely” hoped he would start opening day. The Nationals have come to know Strasburg’s competitive side, and it applied even for the opening-day nod.
“He wants to be that guy,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He wants to throw 200 innings and win 20 games.”
Strasburg will open this year after he closed the last. On the final day of the 2011 season, Strasburg struck out 10 Florida Marlins in six innings. Making only his fifth major league start after surgery, Strasburg unveiled a glimpse of all he can be, the reason why the Nationals tabbed him to start opening day.
“I still have this lasting impression from his last game in Miami,” McCatty said. “The guy’s a No. 1 starter.”