HARRIS: Nationals’ Opening Day brings Stephen Strasburg, unwrapped

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Sept. 28, 2008, the Washington Nationals started a lineup against the Phillies that featured such “highlights” as Ryan Langerhans batting cleanup, Luke Montz catching and Kory Casto hitting third and playing first base.

They lost 8-3. Nats diehards appreciate the significance of that loss, the team’s 102nd of the season. It may have been their best loss ever, as it assured them of having the worst record in baseball and put them in position to make the easiest No. 1 draft pick in history.

The next June, Washington selected pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Monday, more than four years after they earned the right to draft him, the Nationals will send Strasburg to the mound at Nationals Park to open the 2013 season. In many ways, it is the real beginning of the Strasburg Era.

Nothing but his pitching. No sideshows. Just the chance to finally see how good he can really be.

This is finally Strasburg Unleashed.

“I think everybody is excited, including Stras,” said Nationals utility man Chad Tracy. “We’re expecting big things out of him and we need big things out of him to get where we need to get.”

Strasburg has already been part of more national stories than most players are in their careers. Being the top draft pick. The last-second signing. The dazzling major league debut during which he struck out 14 Pirates in seven innings. The devastating elbow injury. The Tommy John surgery. The rehab. The return. And finally, the team-imposed innings limit that hung over him all last season.

It’s all gone. It’s time to pitch and just pitch.

He’s still only 24. He has enough seasoning and pitching maturity to be really good, yet he has so much more to learn there, too. He’s been to an All-Star game, won 15 games last season despite the albatross of the limit, has struck out 313 batters in 2511/3 career innings.

“As dominant as he can be, it’s scary to know he is going to be better and he can be better,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Most outings, he’s dominated for a few innings and maybe had an inning here or there where he doesn’t. The more experience he gets, the more he is going to eliminate those rougher innings and it is going to be something to watch.”

LaRoche faced Strasburg in 2010, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his first at-bat, he hit a home run. In his second, he struck out swinging.

“I can remember it not being a comfortable at-bat,” LaRoche said. “There’s certain guys you face when you get in there, you know you are going to have to grind through the at-bat, that it isn’t going to be a good feeling, and he’s one of them. When you’ve got the edge before a hitter even steps in the box, that’s what really separates those guys.”

Strasburg’s repertoire hasn’t changed. He has a fastball that hits the upper 90s, a tremendous curveball and a change-up that ought to be illegal. The more experience he gets, the more comfortable he’ll get with knowing what works best in the various situations he’ll face.

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