- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2017

Go back a year. The message from Stephen Strasburg was simple and clear. He kept working in the bullpen, in the weight room and with the trainers in order to be ready for the postseason. But, he didn’t make it back in time following an injury.

Go back eight months. Strasburg sat in the team’s new digs in West Palm Beach, Florida, at spring training. The message he prioritized then was to manage his health though the season so he can pitch in the postseason. When he was injured again by midseason, his chances of participating in October were questioned.

Strasburg has thrown just five innings in the playoffs during his eight seasons in the major leagues. It’s not because his team failed. This will be Washington Nationals‘ fourth time in the postseason since he arrived in the majors in 2010. In, the past, Strasburg has not been healthy — or was shutdown — by the time the playoffs began.

Strasburg is in this season. He will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday night in Nationals Park against the Chicago Cubs. His best season has led to his biggest moment. The spotlight Strasburg’s talent beckons but personality shuns will be on him Friday night when he tries to take the first step toward finally getting the Nationals out of the first round of the playoffs.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs again,” Strasburg said. “It’s one thing you really can’t take for granted.”

To get to this point, with a career-low 2.52 ERA after a stunning 10 starts since the All-Star break during which he had an 0.86 ERA, Strasburg has mixed four devastating pitches. His fastball usage dropped. He started throwing his curveball and changeup — the latter arguably his best pitch — more. He sprinkled in a slider. Strasburg also discarded his windup at the beginning of the season in order to pitch exclusively from the stretch. A final adjustment came when he moved his hands to a different position before he comes set in order to not tip his pitches, which he believes had happened in the past.

Put those modifications together and the result is a pitcher who has almost reached a level the hype tied to his arrival suggested. Strasburg has long not enjoyed that load of scrutiny. He randomly mentioned after one start this season that, “They build you up to tear your down” following a game he pitched well in. No one was tearing him down following his last 10 starts when he allowed just six earned runs and set an organization record with 34 consecutive scoreless innings.

“He did a great job of getting ahead and giving all our catchers options of where we could go,” Matt Wieters said. “When a guy has Stras’ fastball, he’s been able to get 0-1, 0-2 on hitters which allows to get to any pitch in the book. A lot of times you’ll see when you go 1-0, 2-0, you’re going to throw more fastballs.”

It’s his less his stuff that will be in question before Friday and more his demeanor. Strasburg is addicted to routine. But, he has not pitched in a game for a week or the playoffs for three years. Strasburg threw a bullpen session Tuesday to tune himself up for Friday’s start. Only a smattering of reporters were on the field. No one was in the stands.

He, of course, has dealt with manic hype since his 2010 debut. Since, Strasburg has become a father, signed a $175 million extension to stay in Washington, worked through numerous injuries and desperately searched for ways to pitch when it mattered most. He was disheartened last season when a partially torn pronator tendon kept him from pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.

“Stras has been an elite pitcher since we brought him in here,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He continued to be elite. He, like all other pitchers, he came in, he matured, and felt more comfortable in the big leagues. As you have season after season with the same place, he felt as at ease as he ever has here.”

Strasburg did catch Wieters’ attention in spring training. Wieters was new and a late arrival. In his first bullpen session, he realized Strasburg was throwing each pitch with a purpose. There was no part of the process which Strasburg didn’t take seriously, even in the February sun while in Florida.

“He’s focused,” Wieters said. “He’s focused and driven. … I think that will help him on a stage like we’ll have [Friday].”

There were conflicting stories about Strasburg’s reaction to the news that he would be the Game 1 starter. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he called Strasburg in to tell him of the team’s decision. According to Baker, Strasburg left with the same look on his face as when he entered.

“I was like, man, I thought he was going to be like, ‘Yeah!’ or something — but just…,” Baker made a blank face.

Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler claimed he could tell Strasburg was excited during a conversation the two had. Though, he also compared Strasburg to Arizona’s straight-faced Zack Greinke. Believe what you will.

The lone focus now is Friday night’s result. Strasburg has waited years for this chance. He worked feverishly last October for it and did not receive it. All year, he’s pointed toward it. Finally, it’s here.

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