- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2014

Stephen Strasburg grew up a San Diego Padres fan. More specifically, he grew up a Jake Peavy fan.

Strasburg’s roots in San Diego run deep. He was born there and starred at West Hills High School in a suburb less than 20 miles away. When it was time to go to college, he chose nearby San Diego State. And when he arrived at San Diego State, he listed Peavy, then the Padres‘ ace, as his favorite player.

Peavy made his major league debut when Strasburg was 13 years old. In the years since, Strasburg has emerged as one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, and Peavy has bounced from San Diego to Chicago to Boston and, finally, to the San Francisco Giants. As Strasburg’s career has blossomed, Peavy’s has sputtered with age. Along the way, Peavy said they’ve become friends.

“I am a Stephen Strasburg fan,” Peavy said. “You can’t help to be one.”

On Friday afternoon, they will start opposite one another in Game 1 of the best-of-five National League Division Series. Strasburg will make his long-awaited postseason debut after sitting out the 2012 playoffs because a team-imposed innings limit following Tommy John surgery. Peavy will make his sixth playoff start and his fourth in the past two years.

“It will be fun,” Peavy said. “It’s a neat story behind the story.”

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The player Strasburg grew up idolizing is now someone who counts him as a friend. The two have shared conversations in-person and via text messages, worked out together in the offseason and even moved into the same residential community in San Diego, according to Peavy. Strasburg called his former favorite player “a great guy, a great competitor.”

“Obviously growing up in San Diego, I got a chance to see him do some special things for the Padres,” Strasburg said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity, and I think I’m just excited for getting a chance to pitch in the postseason. It doesn’t really matter who I’m facing.”

For Strasburg, opposing Peavy is nothing more than a subplot. The 26-year-old flamethrower said he is more concerned with staying on an even keel in arguably the most important start of his career, continuing to do what he’s done over the course of the season.

“I think if I go out there and just compete, I’m going to be OK,” Strasburg said. “I can sleep well at night. I can’t really worry about whether I’m missing a spot or one side. It’s nice to recognize that, but I can’t really go out there and beat a dead horse with it. I have to pitch to my strengths and make them adjust to my game.”

Strasburg watched helplessly from the dugout as the Nationals stretched their 2012 series against the St. Louis Cardinals to five games but lost in crushing fashion. He downplayed that experience when asked about it, saying, “I try not to look back on what it was like two years ago.” But his teammates say he’s relishing this opportunity.

“Having to sit out in 2012, sit back and watch that, I know that’s been eating at him for two years,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Last year, we all got a little taste of how the playoffs aren’t guaranteed, how hard it is to get in. So now he’s got a fresh taste of it, and I think he’s been looking forward to this for a long time.”

The decision to start Strasburg in Game 1 was clear, but not easy for manager Matt Williams. Every member of the starting rotation showed flashes of dominance in the final month of the season, from Doug Fister’s three-hit shutout to Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter in the regular-season finale.

“Over the last month, everybody has been really good,” Williams said. “Stephen in particular has gotten stronger as this month has gone on. His fastball velocity has ticked up each month during the course of the season. And we all forget about the fact that he had some surgery last offseason, and it took him some time to get back to where he really wanted to be. And I think he’s proven that over the last four to six weeks, that he feels good.”

Strasburg said he was excited to learn that he will be starting Game 1 but more excited to be pitching in the postseason in the first place. He knows these opportunities are rare. The atmosphere will be different, and the pressure will be intensified, but it’s still the same game.

“You’ve still got to go out there and focus on the things that you can control, and that’s making sure that before you throw each pitch, that you’re locked in and you know what you want to do with it.” he said. “This game is funny, so you’ve just really got to keep your composure and you’ve got to keep dialing.”

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