VIERA, Fla. — Gone was the scowl, the bone-chilling stare and any other hint of a storm brewing inside. Gone was the look of a man dying to be a part of a team in more than name only. In their place, a pitcher who seemed to be at peace.
As Stephen Strasburg arrived at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex Monday morning, for the first time in years the buzzword used in conversation with him had nothing to do with limits or surgery or rehab or his phenom status.
Strasburg was relaxed. Tanned and smiling often, he made his way through an informal workout on minor-league fields teeming with several of his teammates. He shook hands and doled out hugs as he made the rounds on his first full day in camp.
Then he stood in front of a group of reporters, his black Nike Dri-Fit shirt billowing in the Florida breeze, and talked about the beauty of this latest buzzword: “unrestricted.”
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be a test. I think I’m ready for it. I trained really hard this offseason to hopefully answer the bell and throw 200-plus innings and be the guy in the rotation that can be reliable. To go six, seven, eight, hopefully nine innings this year, every time out.”
With each workout that Strasburg goes through this spring, each bullpen session he throws, each day that he moves closer to the 2013 season, he will distance himself from the decision the Nationals made in 2012 to stick to their Tommy John rehab protocol and shut him down after 159 1/3 innings. He will take one step closer to becoming the type of ace whose workload fits his talent.
“I’m 100 percent over it,” he said of the decision that dominated national headlines all season and became a hotly debated issue despite the Nationals’ unwavering plans from the outset.
“I’m moving on,” he said. “I’m excited to get into the season and see what we can do as far as having a target on our back now. It should be a good test for all of us.”
Strasburg enjoyed a fairly quiet offseason in San Diego. He played golf and hosted a 5K run to benefit the San Diego State University baseball program. He traveled a bit for teammates’ weddings and, mostly, didn’t discuss the way the 2012 ended — for him or the Nationals. It was, however, still the first topic asked about by “random people,” he said.
“I’m sure people are going to ask me for a while,” he said. “And some people aren’t as up to date. Some people still think I got hurt last year. I was like, ‘Yeah, I pitched [almost] a full season already.’ It’s just a part of the gig, I guess.”
Now instead of worrying about when the end will come, Strasburg can focus more on the business of pitching. The Nationals, and by extension manager Davey Johnson, will treat him like any other 24-year-old pitcher when it comes to his workload.
During the winter, pitching coach Steve McCatty, who preaches early contact and low pitch counts to his staff, checked in on Strasburg about once a month — just as he did with Jordan Zimmermann, or Ross Detwiler, or any of the Nationals’ other pitchers he felt like he needed to chat with. There wasn’t any unique treatment for Strasburg, which is just what he’d prefer.
And with that freedom, the right-hander would like to make his own improvements to help keep his pitch counts down and last deeper into ballgames. He’d like to improve his fastball command, to sharpen his repertoire, to throw his change-up “a little bit less in certain counts and rely on my fastball more, rely on my sinker a little bit more.”
He spoke often of the test facing the Nationals now that they’ve achieved “favored” status, as opposed to years as doormats or underdogs.
“I don’t think anybody expected anything from us last year and now we’re the front-runner and everybody wants a piece of us,” he said. “With that, it’s a little different, and it becomes a little more of a challenge. I think we’re ready for it, we just need to stick together and keep plugging along.”
When he was finished talking, Strasburg signed autographs for a few fans who’d stuck around after the workouts and made his way back to the clubhouse. He offered more hugs and handshakes when he got there, for the clubhouse guys and other teammates he’d yet to see. All along a smile ever-present.
• Amanda Comak can be reached at email@example.com.
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