The Washington Times - February 19, 2012, 12:56PM

VIERA, Fla. — The first year, Stephen Strasburg was the phenom, the guy with the golden arm, and the biggest question was whether or not the Nationals would allow their prized pitcher to skip the minor leagues altogether.

The second year, he was a spectator. The road back from Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery was only part-way paved and Strasburg was reduced to monitored sessions of catch while the rest of his teammates prepared for a season in which he’d have little impact.

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This year, finally, for Strasburg, it’s about baseball, and now he can be “just another donkey,” as former San Diego State University pitching coach Rusty Filter calls him to this day.

“The one thing that I really benefitted from in college was that they treated me just like I was another donkey,” Strasburg said. “That’s what they 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 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.”

Strasburg was making himself comfortable inside the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday morning, joining the rest of the Nationals pitchers and catchers as they trickled in on their official report date. Now more than 17 months removed from his 2010 Tommy John surgery, Strasburg reported his health is fine and he spent much of the offseason keeping up with his cardio, lifting and doing yoga to improve his flexibility and help his muscles recover faster.

He began throwing a bit earlier than usual this offseason so he could take it a little slower and pace himself as he got “back in the swing of things,” but went through an otherwise normal, uneventful offseason. Now, he said, things are so normal when he throws it “feels like it almost never happened.”

“It feels so much more natural now than it did coming off the surgery,” he added. “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… I think it’s more just on the mental side just, not necessarily bracing for it, but just kind of that little thing in the back of your head when you’re throwing the pitch: Is everything right? Now there’s no second thoughts at all. It feels more natural now than it did coming right off of surgery.

There will be no restrictions on Strasburg during camp. He’ll be thrown into the mix with the rest of the Nationals’ starting pitchers and put on a regular schedule — just the way he’d like. He doesn’t intend to make any concerted effort to hold back on his potentially triple-digit fastball out of fear, though one thing he talked about last year was learning that he didn’t have to go max-effort every time, that sometimes 98 mph will get the job done just fine.

“When you’re out there in the game, it’s hard to really tone it down a bit,” he said. “You’re in the heat of battle, you’ve got your adrenaline going. I’m not going to throw a pitch slower to where they have a chance of hitting it, unless it’s offspeed. I’m going to throw my fastball normal speed. I’m not going to slow my arm down a little bit extra. You don’t want to change your arm speed on any pitch.”

He also admitted that while he’s happy he feels back to normal it’s not an experience he intends to forget.

“I need to remember what I learned from that because it was a tough experience in my career,” he said. “I just need to remember that you can’t take things for granted. You’ve got to keep working hard every day, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

He will, however, be put on an innings limit during the regular season. The Nationals have been mum on what, specifically, that limit will be but it’s safe to assume it’ll be in the general range of the 160-inning mark Jordan Zimmermann was held to in 2011. Strasburg pointed to Zimmermann’s experience when asked about dealing with those types of restrictions.

“One thing I learned from Jordan and what I’m going to try to incorporate is that I don’t expect myself and I don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Oh, I know they’re going to take me out this inning because I’m only throwing this many innings this year.’ I’m going to go out until they take the ball out of my hand.”

Even last year, when Strasburg was asked about coming back and how excited he’d be to get to the point where he’s at today, he pointed further in the future. He was more excited, he said, for the day when there were no restrictions at all. The day where he, Zimmermann and whoever else was next to them in the rotation could throw 200-plus innings year-in, and year-out.

“Whether it’s going complete game or pitching on three days rest, that’s something that I’m working hard to be able to do,” Strasburg said. “I’m 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 to myself. I want to go out there and answer the bell every time out.”

Strasburg followed the Nationals’ moves this offseason relatively closely, he said, mostly getting his news from the handful of other pro players who he’d workout with at SDSU through the winter, and called the talks about Prince Fielder “an exciting time,” but he was impressed by the new additions and looking forward to incorporating guys like Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson into the Nationals’ stable. 

“I think we’re all excited,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think that changes every single year. I think going into spring everybody feels like they’re capable of having great years but now it’s time to put up or shut up, basically.”