Nationals camp report: Stephen Strasburg, unleashed

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

VIERA, Fla. -- All Stephen Strasburg has ever wanted is a quiet shelter from the noise and to be treated the same as all the other guys dressing at the cubicles surrounding him.

Stephen! shouts the crowd. How many are you going to strike out tonight? ... Stephen! holler the masses. Got time for a photo? ... Stephen! yell the talk-radio screamers. How can you let the Nationals shut you down early?

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He enjoys personal attention only a tick more than a rocket back through the box. He is shy. He is quiet.

He is everything that his right arm of the gods works against.

“It's tough,” Strasburg says quietly, sitting in front of his locker during a wide-ranging conversation the other morning. “Anybody you ask in here, they know who I am as a person.

“Stuff that people write, whether it's good or bad, doesn't really match up to the type of player, type of teammate, I want to be.

“That's my main goal: Be a good guy in the clubhouse. Win or lose, I've got your back. That's what I focus on.”

On the eve of the most highly anticipated season since the Nationals moved to D.C. eight years ago, Strasburg, to a degree, is getting his wish to be just one of the guys.

Finally, both internally and externally, he will be treated no differently than any other pitcher in the Nats' clubhouse. There will be no innings limit on him in 2013.

Stephen Strasburg, unchained.

“As a competitor, you want to go out there and give it everything you have until they take the ball out of your hands,” he says. “I'm excited to go out and do that this year.”

He is not the most entertaining quote. He will never be a favorite among reporters because, if you're looking for a guy to fill up your notebook, you may as well keep moving past his locker.

His first line of defense is to talk in terms of “team this” and “we that,” deflecting anything even remotely personal. Sending his answers straight through the rinse cycle.

But if you're patient enough to work around his schedule, wait for the right moment and then have the chance to peel back a few layers … what you find is a thinking man's pitcher nimble enough not only to construct, but, maybe just as importantly in his development, to deconstruct.

Entering his first major-league season without limits, Strasburg very much would like to cross the 200 innings-pitched threshhold after having his plug pulled at 159 1/3 in 2012.

“There are going to be years when the wins just pile on, and there are going to be years when it just seems like you're always pitching on the wrong day,” he says. “I think the biggest thing is proving your durability and showing your ability to go out there and be consistent every fifth day.

“I think the biggest thing with that is to go out and log at least six innings every time out. I know if I go out there and try and pitch to contact it will keep my pitches as low as I can and the innings will pile up.”

Growing up, he admired Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy and Roy Halladay. Power pitchers who became machines with the flick of an internal switch.

“Hard workers, bulldogs on the mound,” Strasburg says. “They don't let all the outside things really affect the way they prepare for a game. They don't let the results affect the way they prepare for the next one.”

He is the anti-Nuke LaLoosh, as far as you can get from the stereotypical speedballer who simply rears back and tries to singe opposing hitters' eyebrows with every pitch.

He is working hard this spring on inducing groundouts, quick innings, throwing his curveball to both sides of the plate. He is sweating over refining his sinker.

He has changed the way he sets up when pitching out of the stretch. At times in the past, he's had difficulty holding runners.

When things are working perfectly, he gets the ball to home plate in close to a second. But with runners aboard … whenever he rushes and is too quick from the waist down, it causes the ball to elevate. When he tries to play catch up with his arm, the ball dives too sharply toward the ground.

At 24, Strasburg has the acumen and self-awareness -- and, maybe most important, the desire -- to work toward improving this part of his game, too.

Ask for his definition of an elite big league pitcher, and Strasburg notably does not reel off strikeout landmarks and old-school numbers.

“An elite pitcher, you can't really look at wins and losses,” he says. “I think there are a lot of good pitchers on teams that just don't win a lot that are overlooked. ERA, that's kind of subjective too. Strikeouts, there are a lot of guys who can strike out a lot of people but just don't win.

“I think the most consistent thing is durability. You look at the top pitchers in the game, the ERA, the strikeouts, the wins, those will all fluctuate on a year-in, year-out basis. Sometimes you'll have some great years and have a lot of wins and a low ERA and a lot of strikeouts, and sometimes you won't.

“But the consistent thing is 200 to 240 innings with those guys. And there's not too many who do that on a year-in, year-out basis. That's a goal of mine to accomplish. I'm still learning the ropes. I'm doing everything I can to get to that point. But there's still a lot of room to get better.”

Yet, with each windup comes the chance for something miraculous from Strasburg.

And, with each pitch -- until now -- came notice that he was different from his teammates, a notion that was both inescapable and abhorrent to him.

Tough part last season wasn't watching his teammates battle -- and lose to -- the Cardinals in the playoffs. No. By then, he had already been shut down for more than a month. What was he going to do at that point? Remove his arm from the mothballs and go get ‘em?

No. The part of the shutdown that most made him see red came five days following what was his final start of the season. And the five days after that. And the next five days. …

“Obviously, I wanted more than anything to be out there competing with the guys,” he says. “But I'll tell you, it was tougher at first when we still had a month left in the season and it was still up in the air. We still needed to put up some wins because there were so many good teams in the division and we were still trying to get in.”

Looking back, there was more fuel remaining in his arm than in his head.

“Physically, I definitely felt strong,” he says. “I'd be lying to say all the scrutiny didn't cause, I guess, distractions.”

The daily circus drove him mad, especially as his innings odometer ticked past 100, 110 and zeroed in on 160.

“It's hard trying to focus on the task at hand when the first question you have every single time is how do you feel?” he continues. “How many more starts are you going to get, seeing it all over ESPN, them talking about it.

“When you start to think about that and the whole countdown scenario, it weighs on you, as much as you don't want it to.

“Physically, I was ready. I felt like I'd prepared a lot in the offseason two years ago to get ready for it. I worked even harder this offseason. So hopefully things will go according to plan.”

He increased his weight work. He did a little more yoga. Fine-tuned his running program.

“I'm still growing into my body, still maturing,” he says. “I've got to just keep focusing on eating healthy and trying to make sure that when all is said and done and I enter my prime, whenever that is, I've put in all the work beforehand to ensure that I'll be able to stay there and stay consistent for a long time.”

Unleashed, with good health and a little luck, the beginning of Strasburg's prime could begin with his opening day start against the Marlins.

An All-Star last summer -- his San Diego State coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn predicted that in April, saying Strasburg already looked like his old, pre-Tommy John-surgery self a few starts into the season -- Strasburg has learned much over the initial 45 starts of his career.

Yes, the hitters are more advanced. Absolutely, you must be on top of your game through the entire lineup. Throw a cookie to an eight-hole hitter and even he will make you pay.

But Strasburg now has been around the track enough now to have learned something else, too.

“Hitters are a lot better, but they're not as good as they look on SportsCenter where all you see is the highlights,” he says. “You've really got to just trust your stuff every day. Some days they're going to get you, some days they're not.

“The important thing is to show up with the same mindset, same competitiveness and you'll be OK.”

Especially when electricity crackles from your arm, and this much self awareness fuels your attack.

“Justin Verlander went through the same thing,” veteran Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman says. “He used to be 103 mph first pitch. Now, it's 93, 94, and then when he gets to the seventh inning, it's 97, 98.

“He attacks guys and gets ground balls early. Obviously, we've seen what he's done in the last three, four years. He's been on one of the best runs of any starting pitcher, ever.

“Stras has that kind of stuff. And I don't think anybody in this room thinks he can't be as good as Verlander.”

Volume on this D.C. season already cranked up past 10, Strasburg might finally find his shelter in the storm this summer.

Incongruous as it seems amid the anticipated din, for the first time in his major-league life, this will be his closest encounter ever to being an equal among the other 24 Nationals.

He is past his rookie season, when his unveiling was like that of a new pope in Vatican City. He is done with the curiosity of his comeback from Tommy John surgery. He has moved past the innings limit that turned 2012 into a time warp.

The bubble-wrap has been removed. Yes, he always will be watched. But for the first time as a major leaguer, maybe he can slip in a few deep breaths and even exhale while doing his thing.

“Obviously, guys have seen me more, so it's not like all my work is done,” Strasburg says. “I'm 24 years old and I'm still learning how to pitch. I know there are a lot of areas for improvement.

“So it's going to be a learning process even more this year to really develop an idea of what it takes to stay healthy and answer the bell every fifth day for an entire season.”

The presence of Bryce Harper has alleviated some of the white-hot glare on Strasburg. For that, he's thankful.

“I'd say we're polar opposites,” Strasburg says. “He likes the attention. I don't mind being in the background. I just want to be another guy.

“Some of the relationships I've already been able to establish here in the clubhouse, hopefully some will be lifelong friendships. That's the thing I love about baseball.

“Just going out there and getting down in the trenches with the guys and just grinding. Just winning and losing together.”

It still means a lot to him that the Nationals were quick to accept him as a rookie. There was none of the usual resentment and jealousy that accompanies some hot-shot kid on a rocket ride to the stars. He speaks of those in the clubhouse who “haven't had the recognition in their careers but have done it year-in and year-out.”

Those are the guys Strasburg looks at with reverence. To him, this game isn't about how many times you can make the flash-bulbs pop, but how much heavy lifting you can perform over the years. Grinding in the trenches.

To that end, yes, he wants to pitch more to contact this summer rather than rack up sizzling strikeout numbers. He wants to work deeper into games. He wants to help take the Nationals deeper into October.

Still.

With that arm, you figure there will be an occasional night when he'll be amped to the baseball heavens and murmur to himself, “Damn I feel like striking out 20 tonight.”

Right?

A serious artist who rarely smiles in his studio offers a rare trace of one.

“Tough to say,” Strasburg says, opening day closing in. “There are games that might happen, and it might not.

“The biggest thing is, how many innings can I go? How many times can I go back out there and relieve the bullpen, give them a little rest? Or I'm pitching with the lead, and make sure we keep that lead and shut the door on the other team.”

With each pitch, the possibilities are boundless.

Strasburg, unleashed.

He's been waiting for this.

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