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HARRIS: Nationals’ Opening Day brings Stephen Strasburg, unwrapped

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2013

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.

"His stuff hasn't maxed out yet," Tracy said. "Add the savvy on top of it as he gets older, and the sky is the limit for him.

"He's built for the long haul. He takes care of himself. He does things right. Now it is just a matter of staying healthy and going out and doing what he does."

Strasburg is as quiet as his pitches are loud. He'd rather blend in, but seems to understand his status as a former No. 1 pick and his history doesn't allow for that. Learning to deal with that spotlight is another part of the maturation process.

He's definitely excited for his pitching to become the story. He seems to be as eager as anyone to see where that story goes.

"This is my first opportunity to pitch a full year in the big leagues, and I'm still learning how to do it," Strasburg said.

LaRoche seems excited, too, about having a pretty good view of the development.

"The nice thing about this year is he can go in knowing the surgery is behind him, know there are no restrictions," LaRoche said. "It has to be a breath of fresh air for him, knowing he can just go play and not have to worry about any pitch limits, really focus on winning and not when his last start is going to be. It has to be a relief to have that behind him."

For him, and many others. That 2008 season was a misery while it was going on, but it produced a gift at the end. Now the gift is fully unwrapped and ready to be enjoyed.

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