VIERA, Fla. (AP) After dropping down a few bunts in the batting cage, Stephen Strasburg strolls over to a back field to take part in some fielding drills.
He walks with his head down, avoiding eye contact but not going out of his way to keep from being noticed. Still, he breezes right past dozens of Washington Nationals fans, who seem oblivious to being in the presence of a national phenomenon from just two years ago.
Remember when everyone had a severe case of Strasanity?
Here was this big kid with the 100 mph fastball, blowing away big league hitters in the nation’s capital not long after leaving college. Then, suddenly, he was gone, sidelined for part of one season and most of another after blowing out his right elbow.
“At that age, you feel invincible,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday, standing on one of the practice fields next to Space Coast Stadium. “Then you’ve got to tell a guy, `You’re going to have Tommy John surgery and miss an entire year of your career.’ It’s tough.”
Distraught at first, Strasburg got through the rehab and returned to make five starts for the Nationals at the end of last season, not quite as dominant as before but still better than most.
This year, he’s really ready to shine.
The hype? He’ll gladly cede that to someone else.
“I think my family and friends enjoyed it more than I did,” Strasburg said at his locker after a two-hour workout. “I was just so thankful to have the opportunity to accomplish my dream of pitching in the big leagues. I accomplished that. Now, I’ve got to move on to the next step: staying here and being successful.”
The spotlight, it would seem, has been turned on another Nationals player of enormous potential. Sure, Bryce Harper has yet to play a game above the Double-A level. Even so, there’s already plenty of fans at spring training wearing his No. 34 jersey, eager to get a glimpse of the 19-year-old outfielder who followed Strasburg as Washington’s second straight No. 1 draft pick and brashly proclaimed his intention to claim a starting job.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Strasburg said. “He’s kind of going through a little bit of what I went through. But it’s understandable. I don’t expect there to be hype my entire career. Hopefully, it’s more about expectations – and hopefully high expectations – because I perform well. I’m good dealing with my own expectations.”
The 23-year-old Strasburg is fully recovered from his surgery but still under some limitations. Taking no chances with such a national treasure, the Nationals won’t let him pitch more than about 160 innings this season, trying to ensure he doesn’t re-injure himself. Also, they’ve assembled a much deeper rotation around him, acquiring Gio Gonzalez (16-12) and Edwin Jackson (12-9).
“The biggest thing this year is going to be eliminating the type of hype Stephen had two years ago,” Washington shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Our rotation is so good, it’s not fair to the rest of the guys for Stephen to be singled out. I think he’s just going to be a nice addition to our staff.”
The Nationals also have Jordan Zimmermann (8-11), John Lannan (10-13) and Chien-Ming Wang, a two-time 19-game winner with the New York Yankees before injuries sidetracked his career.
“They’re all going to help each other,” Desmond said. “Stephen is such an accomplished kid. He’s accomplished so much in his life already. He may have something to offer to the other guys. But I think guys like Edwin might have something to offer Stephen. I think they’re all going to feed off each and I definitely think all of them are going to benefit, maybe Stephen more than anyone else.”
Make no mistake, though, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strasburg is the one expected to lead the Nationals’ rotation for the next decade or so. After a brilliant career at San Diego State and a stint on the U.S. bronze-medal team at the 2008 Olympics, he was drafted by Washington and agreed to a record $15.1 million, four-year contract just ahead of the signing deadline.
In his first minor-league game with Double-A Harrisburg in 2010, ESPN broke into its regular coverage when he was on the mound. Within two months, Strasburg was called up by the Nationals, perhaps the most-celebrated pitching prospect in the history of the game. He certainly did nothing to lessen the expectations, striking out a team-record 14 Pittsburgh hitters in his major league debut.
Strasburg made a dozen starts that season, with dominating results. He was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, striking out 92 in just 68 innings. More impressive for someone of his size who throws so hard, he had only 17 walks.
“He’s a big, strong horse of a kid with terrific stuff who can still pound the strike zone,” Rizzo said. “He has remarkable command with remarkable stuff. That’s what separates him from a lot of other hard-throwing, big-bodied pitchers.”
Once he got over the shock of being hurt, Strasburg began to absorb some valuable lessons. He knew he needed to get stronger and maintain a more diligent, consistent workout program, so his mechanics would hold up over a long season. He also realized that it wasn’t necessary to strike out 14 or 15 hitters every game, that he might be better off getting an infield grounder on a first-pitch changeup that going for the strikeout with three 100 mph fastballs.
Coming back last September, his strikeout ratio was down (24 Ks in 24 innings) but he allowed only 15 hits and two walks.
“He has a better idea of how to pitch. Every pitch didn’t have to be with maximum effort,” Rizzo said. “I think the mental side of his game increased last year. That will help the physical side of his game.”
As for the hype, someone else can take that.
Notes: Nationals OF Jayson Werth skipped Tuesday’s workout because of muscle spasms in his back. Manager Davey Johnson does not think the injury is serious enough for Werth to miss any spring training games, but decided not to take any chances. Werth was among several Washington players who attended Monday night’s Daytona 500 NASCAR race. … LHP Sammy Solis, one of Washington’s top pitching prospects, will need Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. He was in camp as part of the accelerated development program, but pain he first experienced a couple of months ago in the Arizona Fall League returned during a throwing session last Friday.