WASHINGTON — For the first time in his career, Stephen Strasburg will climb the mound at Nationals Park for Monday's season opener and just pitch, external factors no longer hovering over him. When he made his big league debut in 2010, sky-high hype surrounded him. His second season was clouded by his recovery from elbow surgery. And last season was about his much-debated innings limit.
Strasburg will fire the first pitch of the Washington Nationals' highly anticipated 2013 season to Miami Marlins leadoff hitter Juan Pierre shortly after 1:05 p.m. This time, his main concern will be how to channel the excitement he has occasionally struggled to contain, as he did last April in his first opening day start.
"The adrenaline is going to be kicking in," Strasburg said Friday. "The mechanics are not going to be where you want them to be. It's going to be a little uncomfortable out there but that's when you gotta go out there and pitch and trust your stuff."
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said Strasburg appeared more relaxed this spring because he finally gets to pitch a full season and be with his teammates until the end. Johnson will allow him to throw as much as needed this season. "He's got the shackles off," Johnson said.
For all his talent and all the years he has been in the public eye, it's easy to forget that Strasburg is only 24 with 45 career starts. This season is important to him, to prove that he is able to handle a full workload. He wants to pitch past the seventh inning in a major league game for the first time.
Following a practice he has kept since college, Strasburg sat in on veteran right-hander Dan Haren's bullpen session on Friday, keen to glean any tips. Strasburg is still learning.
"The game gets a lot harder when you're out there trying to do everything yourself," he said. "And I'm guilty of it at times. I try and go out there and strike everybody out and just kinda put the team on my back. Like I said, do everything. But when you give your teammates an opportunity to do what they practice every single day — fielding groundballs, catching flyballs, hitting your cutoff man — it's amazing how much easier the game gets for the pitcher when you just use your defense."
After Strasburg's final spring training tuneup, five scoreless innings against Nationals minor leaguers on Wednesday, he brooded about his performance. Why? "Because he's Stephen," Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "He always wants to do better than he does."
McCatty talks to Strasburg often about enjoying the game more, not being so hard on himself. He worries that Strasburg absorbs external expectations placed upon him. His talent justifies them, McCatty thinks, but only time will allow them to be met.
"The measuring stick that he's put up against is a lot of real good pitchers who've had long careers doing it," McCatty said. "To try to achieve what they've done in two years, that's a little hard to do. Learn to be what you are. Know what you can do. Repeat it over and over. Then 15 years from now, then we'll see. Don't try to be that Hall of Famer. Just be you."
Strasburg will finally get his chance to be himself from the beginning of a season to the end. He takes the mound Monday to start a season filled with high expectations.
"They all say it's a marathon but you gotta get a good start out the gate," Strasburg said. "The games matter just as much in April as they do in September."