- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — His first year, Stephen Strasburg was the phenom. The guy with the golden arm. The biggest question was whether the Nationals would allow their prized pitcher to skip the minor leagues.

The second year, he was a spectator. The road back from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery was only part way paved last February, and Strasburg’s role was reduced to throwing sessions while the rest of his teammates prepared for a season in which he’d have little impact.

This year, finally, it’s about baseball. Now he can be “just another donkey,” as former San Diego State University pitching coach Rusty Filter calls him.

“The one thing that I really benefited from in college was that they treated me just like I was another donkey,” Strasburg said. “That’s what they told me, ‘You’re just another donkey.’ That’s what I want to be here. I don’t want the special treatment.”

Strasburg was making himself comfortable inside the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday morning, joining the rest of the pitchers and catchers as they trickled in on their official report date. His tasks for the day were few: unpack, play catch in the outfield for a short while and participate in a team-required video shoot.

Now, more than 17 months removed from his surgery, Strasburg reported his health is fine. He spent much of the offseason keeping up with his cardio, lifting and doing yoga at CorePower Yoga in San Diego to improve his flexibility and help his muscles recover faster.

He played enough golf that pitching coach Steve McCatty walked by his open bag in the clubhouse and asked if there were any free golf balls for him in it since he heard Strasburgs “on the tour.” And his number was retired by SDSU. It was a standard offseason. Surgery; rehab; doubt; they werent a part of it.

Now things are so normal when he throws it “feels like it almost never happened.”

“It feels so much more natural now than it did coming off the surgery,” Strasburg said. “My mind’s a lot clearer. I just go out there and throw the baseball. I don’t think about, as much, mechanics or anything, I don’t feel myself holding back a little bit, I just let it go.

“Its that little thing in the back of your head when you’re throwing the pitch: Is everything right? Now there’s no second thoughts at all.”

There will be no restrictions on Strasburg during camp. He’ll be in the mix with the rest of the starting pitchers and put on a regular schedule — just the way he’d like. He doesn’t intend to make any concerted effort to hold back on his sometimes-triple-digit fastball out of fear. Last year, he spoke of learning that he didn’t have to go max-effort every time, that sometimes 98 mph will get the job done. That stands true. But power, is power.

He will, however, be put on an innings limit during the regular season. The Nationals have been mum on what that limit will be, but it’s safe to assume it’ll be in the vicinity of 160 innings. Jordan Zimmermann was held to 161⅓ in 2011. Strasburg pointed to Zimmermann’s experience when asked about dealing with those types of restrictions.

“One thing I learned from Jordan is that I don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Oh, I know they’re going to take me out this inning because I’m only throwing this many innings this year,’” Strasburg said. “I’m going to go out until they take the ball out of my hand.”

Even last year, when Strasburg was asked about coming back and how excited he’d be to get to the point where he is today, he pointed further in the future. He was more excited, he said, for the day when there were no restrictions. The day where he, Zimmermann and whoever else is in the rotation could throw 200-plus innings year-in, year-out. The good news for Nationals fans is that day finally seems to be coming. Forgetting how tough itll be to get there, though, is not something Strasburg plans on doing.

“I need to remember what I learned from [surgery and rehab] because it was a tough experience in my career,” he said. “I just need to remember that you can’t take things for granted. You’ve got to keep working hard every day, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Notes: At least 11 of the 24 position players expected in camp already have arrived… Shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa are switching numbers this season to No. 20 and No. 8, respectively. Desmond’s switch was done to honor Frank Robinson, who wore it as the first manager in Nationals history, as well as former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, whom Desmond admires.

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