- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2014

VIERA, FLA. — Stephen Strasburg remembers the first time he arrived in Florida as a 21-year-old phenom fresh off a brilliant final college season at San Diego State and a record signing bonus after the 2009 Major League Baseball draft.

He landed at the Orlando airport for the Nationals’ annual instructional league in September of that year, met with a minor league staffer, hopped in a rental car and drove. And drove. And drove some more until finally reaching Viera, site of Washington’s spring training complex.

“We were driving out into the darkness,” Strasburg said. “I was like ‘Where am I going?’ I couldn’t see anything. It took forever. I’m like ‘Where is this place?’”

That remains a bit of a sore spot still among Nats players, coaches and staff. Space Coast Stadium is on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but an hour’s drive or more from other spring training headquarters.

But knowing his way around isn’t a problem for Strasburg anymore. This week marks his fifth spring training in Viera, which makes him, if not a veteran, at least a comfortable presence as Washington begins preparations for the 2014 season. He’s been through this before.

Strasburg, though, has always been a conundrum. He is a singular talent who wants to blend in. He is a star player who can fill stadiums even on the road and yet is adamant he not be placed above his own teammates. Few things make Strasburg more uncomfortable than a huge media scrum in the locker room at Nationals Park while teammates who contributed to a win are ignored. He just doesn’t think it’s fair no matter how well he pitched.

The crowded locker rooms at Space Coast Stadium leave room for only a handful of double lockers, two of those reserved for starting pitchers. Strasburg, by all rights, should have one. This year he does. There’s extra room for all the assorted equipment, jerseys, shoes and other accumulated necessities that big leaguers pack into their stalls.

But last year Strasburg gave up his double locker in deference to veteran pitcher Dan Haren, a player he’d grown up watching and admiring in southern California. This year Strasburg arrived a few days later than usual and his stuff was already set up in one. There was no one left to defer to.

“It’s a little bit foreign to me,” Strasburg said with a wry smile.

But it is also indicative of the pecking order on the Nats roster. Strasburg, who will turn 26 in July, is no longer a phenom. He’s entering a season where he expects to be among the National League’s Cy Young Award contenders. His right elbow feeling better after bone chips were removed during an October surgery, Strasburg says he is ready to go entering spring training.

“I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” new Washington manager Matt Williams said. “I think he’s certainly got fantastic stuff. He wants to be out there in a playoff situation or opening day or whatever it is. That’s good. Everybody wants that, I hope.”

Strasburg took the mound for the first time in Viera on Sunday afternoon. He spent much of his short session checking an imaginary runner on first base. That’s been an issue early in his career.

Last year runners stole successfully against Strasburg 72 percent of the time – though that was only 13 total given how hard it is for runners to reach base against him at all. The year before, however, runners swiped 14 bases in 16 attempts. Strasburg needed to be better. Holding runners might seem like a small detail, but it’s one that he hopes increases double plays and saves runs.

A first-time father this offseason when his daughter was born, Strasburg is maturing in all aspects of his life. It shows on the field, where a bullpen session three or four years ago might have held the significance of a regular-season start. He would get that amped and waste valuable energy when he didn’t need to.

“I think the first couple years it would be like, ‘Let’s go, the fans are watching,’ and you want to go out there and impress,” Strasburg said. “I’ve come to realize there’s not a hitter in the box, there’s still six weeks of spring training.”

And so he works on the details, instead. He varied his slide step and his looks toward home plate on Sunday. Williams, a details man himself, noticed immediately and believes that attitude can filter down to other players.

Strasburg isn’t quite a veteran yet, though. He says he can’t wait to pick the brain of new Nats pitcher Doug Fister, 29, who was acquired from Detroit in an offseason trade. But with promising young arms again rising through the Washington farm system – Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole among them – that day of serving as a mentor to others isn’t far off. For now, Strasburg continues his own learning curve.

“You want the younger guys to be approachable and that if they have any questions, I try to help them the best I can,” Strasburg said. “But at the same time I don’t feel like I have all the answers, either.”