Despite all the hype and highlights, strikes and spotlight, and the accolades and attention, Stephen Strasburg is a relatively unknown quantity. Entering his third season with the Nationals, he’s yet to begin a year in the majors, yet alone start on Opening Day.
He’ll cross both items off his to-do list Thursday. In one sense, he’ll be another wide-eyed fan making his first pilgrimage to Wrigley Field. In another sense, he’ll be the Nats’ long-awaited ace taking his rightful place atop the rotation.
Like the previous two seasons, 2012 will be something of a tease. The countdown on a team-imposed innings limit begins with the Chicago Cubs’ leadoff batter, and likely will end wsith about one month left in the season. The Nats might be contenders in September, but they’ll have to wait ‘til next year to see how Strasburg might fare in that situation.
Washington could have stretched him out by putting him at the back of the rotation. Delaying his first outing and keeping him on a fifth starter’s schedule could have led to a few mid-September starts. But Strasburg was in no mood to discuss that possibility Tuesday during a news conference at Nationals Park before an exhibition against Boston.
“That’s something you guys [the media] talked about,” he said. “I don’t think it was ever discussed in the coaching staff or within the organization. I don’t have much to say on it.”
But would you prefer pitching on Opening Day or late into the season?
“I don’t have anything to say on it.”
The competitor in Strasburg surely wanted both. He still has much to prove, to himself and everyone else. His major-league career consists of 92 innings, a minuscule sample for the ace of a playoff contender.
But manager Davey Johnson said there wasn’t a doubt - “and I don’t think in his mind, either” - about which Nats pitcher should start the season opener.
Strasburg isn’t taking anything for granted after storming onto the scene in 2010 before blowing out his elbow. He never was far from our minds, but the road back was long and lonely. He gave us a taste with five starts last season, but even then he was a bit of an outsider working his way to normalcy.
While he’s still not all the way back, considering the innings limit, getting the ball for Game No. 1 is supposed to be the new norm in Washington. Strasburg is concentrating on that “huge honor,” not the abbreviated ending that lies ahead.
“I want to go out there and pitch and give it everything I have,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a little different, but at the same time, I want to be like one of the other guys. You go out there, you pitch until your stuff’s not working anymore, and then they take the ball out of your hands.”
When Jordan Zimmermann was in the same position last season, a year removed from Tommy John surgery, they took the ball for good after 161 1/3 innings over 26 starts. There was no playoff race to tempt management, but general manager Mike Rizzo insists that the standings won’t have an influence on Strasburg’s limit this season.
Like it or not, Strasburg will live with the decision. And we’ll still have questions about the Nats’ ace entering 2013, questions about his ability to endure a whole season and stand up (potentially) in the face of a pennant chase.