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NATIONALS: Opening Day Start A Different Challenge For Stephen Strasburg

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

WASHINGTON – Before John Lannan was surprisingly optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg had the opportunity to ask the Washington Nationals’ two-time opening day starter about throwing the first pitch of the season.

Lannan tried to put it in terms Strasburg could understand.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna tell you right now – it’s not going to be anything like what it was for your debut,’ ” Strasburg recalled Lannan telling him. “I’m still going to be excited and nervous and everything. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being nervous. It just shows that you care.”

Nor is there anything wrong with asking for advice – especially considering the circumstances. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander will be on the mound for the Nationals on Thursday in Chicago, where they will open the season against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“You see it on TV and just from some of the guys who played there [and] some of the guys who actually played for the Cubs – it’s a different atmosphere,” Strasburg said. “I’m looking forward to just seeing a packed house, crazy fans and it’s going to be a fun time. Hopefully we go out there and get the job done.”

The opportunity to be the opening day starter has been a long time in the making for Strasburg, who, aside from a prearranged 160-inning limit, will embark on what should be his first full season in the majors.

Strasburg’s rookie year ended prematurely in 2010, when, after 12 starts, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, necessitating Tommy John surgery. Recovery took only a year – quick by usual standards – and Strasburg returned to the mound for the Nationals on Sept. 3, finishing the season by going 1-1 over five starts with a 1.50 ERA, striking out 24 and holding batters to a .179 average.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson said there was no doubt in his mind that Strasburg would start the opener – and “I don’t think in his mind, either.”

But Strasburg admitted it wasn’t a goal he set for himself during the spring, in which he made six starts, pitched 23 2/3 innings and went a misleading 1-4 with a 4.18 ERA.

“I honestly didn’t even really think about it,” Strasburg said. “I mean, opening day is an honor, but it’s not what I play for. I mean, you want to play for the games in October, but at the same time, hopefully we can get this season started off on the right foot and get the ball rolling.”

The specter of not playing in October, should the Nationals advance to the postseason, hasn’t yet started to enter Strasburg’s mind. Assuming he pitches six innings a game – perhaps a tame estimate, given the flamethrower’s efficiency – Strasburg could make approximately 27 starts, which would probably pull him from the rotation in early September.

General manager Mike Rizzo has maintained throughout the spring that the Nationals will not get crafty with Strasburg’s schedule, allowing him to pitch in a normal slot in the rotation and not granting him extra days off to prolong his usefulness into the fall.

In any of the Nationals’ previous seven seasons, preparation for the postseason wasn’t even much of an afterthought. But the team is optimistic this year because of an upgraded pitching staff that includes new acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson and the returning Jordan Zimmermann, and Johnson expects to contend for the NL East title.

“I felt that way last August, and with some of the new additions, you know, I’m more confident,” Johnson said. “No question.”

So does Strasburg.

“I’m happy to be a part of it,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun out there playing with these guys and going out there and supporting them from the dugout. We’ve got a lot of talent, and [when] talent only goes so far, we have some great guys in the clubhouse as well.”


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