The Washington Times - March 21, 2012, 10:49AM

VIERA, Fla. —  For the past five weeks, when it comes to choosing an Opening Day starter from his full cupboard of pitchers, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson has played coy. Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson are his former All-Stars. Jordan Zimmermann was his best pitcher in 2011. 

But there was only one choice, really, for Johnson and that was to hand the ball to the man who has been destined for this assignment since the day the Nationals selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. 

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Nineteen months after Tommy John surgery, Stephen Strasburg will be the Nationals’ Opening Day starter and the unquestioned No. 1 of their 2012 starting rotation. 

“I still have the lasting impression of seeing him in the past and that game in Miami when he struck out 10 (to end the 2011 season),” said pitching coach Steve McCatty, who delivered the good news to Strasburg Wednesday morning. “The guy’s a No. 1 starter. 

“All the guys are doing great, but Stephen is who he is. I’m not knocking anybody else, but here’s a guy that is pretty special. You send your No. 1 guy out there. In my opinion, he’s it.”

Gonzalez will start the second game, April 7, and as long as the Nationals remain in line, Gonzalez will get the nod to start the home opener on April 12 in D.C. against the Cincinnati Reds. Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson figure to follow in that order and the No. 5 starter, whether a healthy Chien-Ming Wang or lefty John Lannan, will line up behind them.

“I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go,” Johnson said, noting this had been in his mind since the Winter Meetings. “It was easy. Very easy.”

Strasburg will immediately headline the Nationals’ list of Opening Day starters, joining a group that includes Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, Odalis Perez and John Lannan. But perhaps most telling about this particular decision was that in discussing it, the one thing Strasburg mentioned repeatedly was that any pitcher on this staff could have handled it. It’s a staff that Johnson called “as good as any I’ve had, in my estimation.”

“With the guys that we brought in and the guys that we already have here, anybody’s capable of starting Opening Day and of getting the job done,” Strasburg said. “It’s an honor and everything, but you’ve got to look at all the other guys on your staff, too… One through five, we have guys who can go out there and get the job done.”

“Being the No. 1 starter for Opening Day is kind of like being the leadoff hitter in the first inning,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “He’s starting Opening Day but there’s going to be a lot more important games during the year where it doesn’t matter if you’re the No. 1 pitcher or the No. 5 pitcher — but I think he wants to be that guy… I think everyone in this room believes in him and is proud to be on a team with him.” 

In giving Strasburg the word now, coming off easily his best start of the spring where he rebounded from an outing in which Johnson criticised him for throwing instead of pitching, Johnson hoped it would allow Strasburg to give himself a little more leeway to work on what he needs to in the spring and not worry about the results.

“He’s not used to having six starts that really don’t count,” Johnson said. “And it’s awful if he gives up a home run in spring training or a hit. That’s just Stephen… (Opening Day) is an honor, but it’s also what a lot of people perceive that he’s earned… I’m also saying to him, this is spring training, this doesn’t matter.”

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Strasburg agreed. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done and it’s just one game. Hopefully the games will be mattering a lot more at the end of the year for us.” 

If all remains on line, Strasburg would make his debut at Nationals Park this season on April 16 against the Houston Astros.