VIERA, Fla. — At home this winter in Michigan, Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty watched as his staff grew and improved. The Nationals added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, and infused the No. 5 spot in the rotation with competition among three candidates who once appeared locks. “As good” a staff, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said, “as any I’ve had, in my estimation.”
But even as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo continued to stock the cupboards with starting pitchers, there was one image McCatty kept in his mind throughout the offseason: the imageof Stephen Strasburg, just weeks past the one-year anniversary of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, one-hitting the Florida Marlins on the final day of the season. The image of Strasburg standing on the mound being himself and striking out 10 Marlins in six masterful innings.
It was the image of an ace.
Gonzalez and Jackson have been All-Stars. Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was the Nationals‘ best pitcher in 2011. But in truth, there was only one choice for the Nationals when it came to naming a starter for the April 5 opener against the Chicago Cubs. It was the man they’ve seen as their No. 1 since the day they drafted him in that slot on June 9, 2009.
“The guy’s a No. 1 starter,” McCatty said. “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 [on Opening Day]. In my opinion, he’s it.”
In his brief but sometimes brilliant career, Strasburg has been a lot of things. But until Wednesday morning, he was never officially the Nationals‘ No. 1 pitcher, and he’s never been an Opening Day starter.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Strasburg said Wednesday, noting that this will be his first trip to Chicago and Wrigley Field. “I think anybody wants to have the opportunity to pitch Opening Day. It’s awesome. It’s a great feeling and I’m looking forward to it.”
The road that has taken him from No. 1 draft pick to No. 1 starter surely wasn’t as smooth as he once envisioned. Losing a full year after elbow surgery will help to serve as quite a speed bump. While Strasburg may not have been pitching in the Nationals‘ rotation for much of 2011, he has worked hard to get to this point. And the teammates that praised Wednesday’s decision have noticed.
“Seeing that kind of effort level from that type of talent, it’s like the guy who gets his M.B.A, goes to Goldman Sachs and is working harder than everybody else,” said reliever Chad Durbin.
It was his latest adjustment, pitching five strong innings in over the New York Mets Tuesday night — not overthrowing, as Johnson and McCatty felt he had been in his previous start, but pitching and locating — that put them over the edge.
Johnson had been ruminating over the choice since the Winter Meetings, as the Nationals set out the path they wanted Strasburg on in his first full year back after surgery. He’ll be on an innings limit, so they could have opted to play around with his placement in the rotation to stretch him as far as they could. They chose not to.
“He’s still going to pitch where I think he should pitch,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard all these different theories from the experts, but I have a little experience in that too and everything in my baseball knowledge is to pitch him where he belongs. And if you’ve got to shut him down, shut him down. End of story.
“I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go and it’s not about Stephen Strasburg. It’s about the Washington Nationals. I’m going to put our best foot forward each and every step of the way.”