- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, FLA. — Much harm can ensue when a splintered bat goes buzzing toward a pitcher. So no one would have blamed Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday night if he’d given wide berth to what came flying his way. Call it, for lack of a better term, a Barrel of Something Other Than Laughs.

Typically, though, Strasburg, the Washington Nationals’ rock-star right-hander, was too focused on the task at hand — the slow grounder bouncing before him — to worry much about an airborne piece of lumber belonging to the New York MetsJosh Thole. He did make the concession of ducking, thereby avoiding major dental work, but otherwise held his ground and made the play.

It was what he said afterward, though, that stuck with you: “I wasn’t going to let the ball get by me. If I got smoked with the bat, it would suck, it would hurt, but I wasn’t going to let the ball get by me.”

As you can see, Strasburg takes this pitching business fairly seriously. So seriously, it seems, that even self-preservation finishes a distant second to Getting the Batter Out — every batter, not just those whose Louisville Sluggers are reduced to kindling. The kid doesn’t want anybody to reach base. Ever.

Steve McCatty, the Nats’ sergeant of arms, is well aware of his pitcher’s perfectionist streak. That’s why he’s always reminding him that baseball is “a game of failure. If you let one mistake bother you, you’ll make another one. It’s not about the last pitch, it’s about the next pitch.”

At 23, though, Strasburg doesn’t appear quite ready to accept this … or to lower his lofty expectations. He treats even spring training outings like “the World Series,” Davey Johnson says with amusement. Trying to talk to him during games, according to the manager, is “like talking to a wall.” The young fireballer is so locked in, almost to the point of possession.

Not that Strasburg is alone in this regard. Other prodigiously talented pitchers, McCatty says, Justin Verlander among them, think they’re going to throw a no-hitter every time they take the hill. So whenever a batter gets the best of them, they bleed a little — and sometimes a lot if the ball happens to land in the bleachers. In those instances, the blood can gush in such torrents that a tourniquet has to be applied.

Still, the Nationals should be heartened that, just 19 months after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is feeling invincible again. His spring training stats are nothing to brag about — an 0-3 record and 5.22 ERA in 14 2/3 innings — but Johnson likes what he sees, enough to name No. 37 the Opening Day starter.

It’s an unusual situation, to say the least. Strasburg, after all, is on an innings limit this season - just as Jordan Zimmermann, another member of the Tommy John club, was last year. So Stephen will pitch the first game in April, but isn’t likely to pitch any games in September, when the Nats, if things fall right, could be battling for a berth in the expanded playoffs.

But you can’t look at it that way, McCatty says, because “the games are as important in the beginning as they are at the end. If you don’t win in April, you may not be in the race in September. Besides, if you held him back, didn’t pitch him for the first month, what are you going to do with him in the meantime? Do you just not throw him at all? He’s going to have to pitch innings somewhere.”

So that settles it. Strasburg will get the ball April 5, when the Nationals begin the season against the Cubs in Chicago, and he’ll keep getting it until the club shuts him down for the year. In his start last week in Port St. Lucie, he seemed to be rounding into form, throwing 85 pitches, hitting 96 on the radar gun and allowing the Mets only one run in five innings.

Where is he, armwise, compared to two years ago, the last time he came to camp healthy? “It’s tough to say,” he said. “I prepared a lot differently that first year. It was probably a little immature of me. But I’m a college guy, and I was used to being ready to go in February. I’d be facing a college team, throwing three innings, and I’d be [airing it out]. I think I have a much better idea now of how to get ready. I realize I’ve got six weeks before the season starts.”

Nats fans might still be a year away from seeing the Strasburg of their dreams, the force of nature who struck out 14 in his major league debut. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the tingle of possibility whenever he steps on the mound. With his stuff, there’s always the chance he’ll do what he sets out to do every game: get everybody out.