by David Elfin

Fellow ace Gio Gonzalez’s alleged – but denied – involvement in baseball’s latest performance enhancing drugs scandal overshadowed Stephen Strasburg’s return to the mound for the Nationals last week.

A healthy Strasburg no longer under an innings limit a year and a half after Tommy John surgery will be a major asset as Washington tries to show that its rise to baseball’s best record in 2012 wasn’t a fluke.

As special as two-time All-Star left-hander Gonzalez is – he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting last year and possesses one of baseball’s top curveballs – Strasburg wasn’t the top overall pick in the 2009 draft on a whim. The lanky, 24-year-old right-hander from San Diego has Hall of Fame stuff.

In 45 starts over parts of the last three seasons, Strasburg struck out 313 batters in 251-1/3 innings while walking just 67. Nearly three quarters of those starts came as Strasburg was working his way back from surgery to the wear and tear that comes with the job of hurling high-speed pitches every five days.

ESPN analyst Harold Reynolds, a former major league second baseman, said that he believes that the Nats will still closely monitor Strasburg this season so that the ace’s innings don’t skyrocket.

I agreed with general manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg last September, making him unavailable for postseason even though the surprising Nats had a great chance to win the World Series. Those who felt otherwise have to concur that Washington lost the divisional series to St. Louis because its hitters slumped and bullpen faltered not because Strasburg was absent. However, I disagree with Reynolds. It’s now time to take the wraps off and just let the kid pitch.

Maybe that’s because I grew up in era when pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter took the ball every four days with the intention of throwing a complete game. Bullpens were used if necessary, not as a matter of course. Relievers were mostly like backups in football, second-stringers, not stars. Somehow, Gibson et al survived all those innings all the way to Cooperstown.

With the acquisition of Rafael Soriano, who saved 87 games for Tampa Bay in 2010 and the New York Yankees in 2012, bolstering a bullpen that already included 2011 Nats closer Drew Storen and 2012 closer Tyler Clippard, manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty will have numerous options when their starters tire.

But Strasburg shouldn’t be treated any differently by Johnson, an old school sort, and gritty former pitcher McCatty than fellow rotation members Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren.

Strasburg, who objected to being shut down in 2012, wants to go all-out this season as the Nats try to deliver Washington’s first baseball championship since 1924 and its first in any of the four major team sports since the Redskins back in 1991.

“It’s going to be a test and I think I’m ready for it,” Strasburg told the media last week at Washington’s spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla. “I’ve 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 and go six, seven, eight, hopefully nine innings, this year every time out. I want them to know I’m going to be 100 percent ready and if you want me to go out there for another inning, I’m your guy.”

Despite his incredible performances as a rookie before injuring his right elbow in August 2010, his fine work in late 2011 upon his return from surgery, and his All-Star status in 2012, Strasburg knows that he’s not a finished product compared to such proven aces as Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay.

“You can always get better in this game,” said Strasburg, noting that he wants to establish even better command of his blazing fastball. “I definitely want to be able to throw my change-up a little bit less in certain counts and rely on my fastball more and rely on the sinker a little bit more. [I want to] keep my pitch count down a little bit more and go deeper into ball games.”

If there are no limits on Strasburg this season, the sky’s the limit for probably the best pitcher to wear a Washington uniform since Hall of Famer Early Wynn in the 1950s, if not the legendary Walter Johnson who began thriving for the Senators when new racing president William Howard Taft was in the White House.

“Knowing he was under no restrictions, he was smooth as silk,” Johnson said last week about Strasburg, who’ll pitch Washington’s Grapefruit League opener on Saturday against the New York Mets. “I like exactly where he’s at.”

Where Strasburg is at this spring is fully healthy. He’s also under contract at the head of Washington’s rotation for the next four years after three partial seasons that were a tease about how terrific he can be when he’s pitching regularly with no restrictions.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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