You never know when or if a special player is ready for his final stage of development. There are often false starts, promises unkept. Sometimes that complete career maturation never really comes into focus at all. But sometimes you can feel its arrival. Stephen Strasburg's time may be coming. How soon? Try about 7:31 p.m. Friday at Nationals Park against the Chicago Cubs.
Perhaps events or the powerful Cubs will conspire against Strasburg and his Nationals in Game 1 of their National League Division Series. After all, early-inning playoff disaster awaited aces Luis Severino, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke in the first, second and fourth innings of their hideous starts this week.
But Strasburg, who will start Game 1 because Max Scherzer is nursing a hamstring tweak and has been pushed back to a likely Game 3 start, clearly wants this moment. Normally reserved to the point of shyness, he took the role of Nats leader and understated spokesman Thursday at the kind of news conference he usually enjoys as much as a rabies vaccination.
"We have a lot of guys in here that want this really bad," said Strasburg, who has a 0.86 ERA in his past 10 starts. "We trust each other, trust this team, that we're going to stick together. . . . This team is a little bit more battle-tested than in the past. Yes, the expectations are a little bit more, but those things are always going to be there when you have that kind of talent in that clubhouse.
"So, my opinion," he concluded his own interview, answering a question nobody asked, "I think this is going to be a great time for us. It's a test. It's a challenge, for sure. But I think we're ready for it."
There's more, but we don't want to overload and break the Strasburg Quote Scale immediately.
"Strasburg doesn't show anything out there on the mound. He's almost Greinke-ish: no change in expression," Nats reliever Brandon Kintzler said. "But you can tell [Strasburg] wants this. We were running together [in the outfield], and he was talking about getting the [Game 1] start. Yeah, he is excited — when you're one-on-one. He's just not going to give you guys [in the media] much."
Over the past 2½ years, Strasburg has learned to block out distractions better, ignore annoyances and, especially, rise to tough game situations rather than be rattled by them. Will that be true under playoff pressure?
"It's funny because, you know, this isn't pressure. This is a game," Strasburg said. "There's a lot of people that deal with a lot of harsher things in their life. That is legitimate pressure."
The Cubs' Game 1 starter is Kyle Hendricks, the proper choice and perhaps the single biggest problem Chicago presents to the Nats. With his savvy precision and speed-changing, the Dartmouth grad should be an ideal foil to Strasburg, whose five-pitch stuff takes a back seat to no one. No one doubts Hendricks's poise. Many, especially years ago, challenged Strasburg's. It's test time.
In five starts against the Nats in the past three years, Hendricks has been effective but not dominant, allowing 11 runs (nine earned), including five homers, in 30⅓ innings. Despite his fine control, the Nats get a few walks, decent contact and traffic against him; Daniel Murphy hit two homers off him in a 4-2 Nats win in August in Chicago. But like most teams, the Nats have never rocked him hard.
"He'll try to use our emotion against us," the Nats' Matt Wieters said.
Strasburg won't be the only Nat who needs to make adrenaline his tool so that it doesn't have a chance to make him its fool.
In a sense, this is the moment for which the Strasburg shutdown happened five years ago. The Nats said then that there would be future Octobers when a healthy Strasburg in his prime would be central to their hopes. They didn't want to risk his career or their dreams by pushing him too hard as he recovered from major elbow surgery.
However, even the Nats didn't know how much they would need Strasburg at this crucial postseason moment. Scherzer, who may win his third Cy Young Award this year, loves big-game stages and was brought to Washington, in part, because he has the temperament to embrace such games. Then others, such as Strasburg and Game 2 starter Gio Gonzalez, could slipstream behind him.
Now those roles have flipped at exactly the moment when Strasburg appears to have matured to the point at which he also welcomes the challenge.
"If we didn't have another true ace, if we didn't have Stephen Strasburg . . ." Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo said, squinting his eyes.
If the Nats didn't, their likely choice would have been to let Mad Max, who's always willing to wrap it up and ride, start in Game 1.
"But we do have Strasburg," Rizzo said and smiled.
To grasp the Nats' own high internal view of Strasburg, consider that, according to Rizzo, Scherzer's preference Thursday was "to start Game 1 . . . Game 2."
Now, in part because the Nats trust Strasburg to start both Games 1 and (if necessary) 5, Mad Max has three extra days to rest. All this would be an easy sell to a logician. Selling it to Scherzer was apparently a GM's nightmare.
The baseball world has waited for Final Stage Strasburg since he became a phenom poster boy at San Diego State in 2009. He has had injuries both major and minor, yet he has persevered, seeking ways to evolve his pitching style, with perhaps baseball's best change-up, as well as a vicious curveball and a good slider, so that he still could be a dominant high-strikeout beast, even though he lost that 101-mph fastball forever when his elbow blew in just his 12th big league start.
Now, at least once and perhaps twice, he will face a confident World Series champion Cubs team in an October examination.
"I'm excited for the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs again," said Strasburg, who also missed last season's playoffs because of a late-season flexor-tendon strain. "It's one thing you really can't take for granted."
Every lesson for Strasburg seems to be a hard one. Last year, he thinks he pushed too hard to pitch through pain and ended up on the disabled list in October. This year, he went against his push-through temperament and took a midseason DL stint to avoid missing this October. And it worked. He came back fresh and roaring. His past 10 games have been perhaps the finest work of his career. At times, he turns the sport into a private game of catch. Batters can seem like messengers, tasked with bringing back word of what they have seen. But not hit.
This season, every inning he has missed was, he says, just voluntary excess precaution so he could "be there at the end." Now he is. Just when he's needed. To what end, we will discover momentarily.
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