For Strasburg, a memorable first major league opener in store

It’s hard to believe, but Stephen Strasburg’s opening day start in Chicago on Thursday will be his first opener as a major leaguer.

Imagine the butterflies accompanying most players on their first opener - and then factor in the emotionally charged intensity that accompanies the right-hander on a typical start and you have to wonder whether Strasburg will be battling himself.

Remember, Strasburg’s first minor league start in his rookie season was on April 11, 2010, when he pitched for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators in Altoona, Pa. He made 11 minor league starts before his scintillating major league debut on June 8, 2010, when he fanned 14 Pirates in seven innings of four-hit ball, picking up a victory. Last year, Strasburg was still rehabbing from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery performed on Sept. 3, 2010.

So does Strasburg think he’ll be nervous when it comes time to throw a ball in anger against the Cubs on Thursday?

“I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran out there, so I’m still going to be excited and nervous and everything,” he said Tuesday before the Nationals’ exhibition against the Red Sox. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being nervous. It just shows that you care.”

No one can argue that Strasburg was indifferent to his rehab. He pushed himself hard in order to be back on a major league mound by last Sept. 6, the first of five 2011 starts. He’s a different animal, something manager Davey Johnson has always known about his ace.

“I was teammates with a guy in Baltimore named Mike Cuellar,” Johnson said. “He was the happiest-go-lucky guy in the world, except the day he pitched and then he was ‘Crazy Horse.’ You couldn’t talk to him, (he was) grumpy. Some guys are like that. Stras is like that.”

Strasburg may be less grumpy and more in a self-created zone. Those typical chats between pitching coach Steve McCatty and a starter leading up to an outing? Well, let’s just say there’s a slightly different arrangement leading into Thursday at ivy-covered Wrigley Field.

“McCatty hasn’t been over to talk to him - finally they’ve talked a little bit,” Johnson said with a hint of a smile crossing his face. “But when he’s pitching, McCatty doesn’t want to go near him. Some guys are like that. It’s not a bad thing.”

Strasburg won’t be pitching in a vacuum. He’s picked the brain of teammate John Lannan, who has made two opening day starts for the Nationals, to get some perspective.

“I think I know a little more what to expect,” Strasburg said. “Just talking to John Lannan about it, he’s made an opening day start, and he just told me, ‘Opening day is awesome and stuff and it’s going to be a great experience, but I’m going to tell you right now, it’s not going to be anything compared to what it was like for your debut.’ “

There will still be a packed house, albeit a hostile enemy crowd. And Wrigley’s wind can be notoriously unkind to pitchers that allow fly balls to get into the launching pad on West Addison Street. But for now, Strasburg is just eager for the experience to pitch in a park he’s never seen. The fact that it’s a season opener - and his first major league opening day - seems a million miles away.

“You see it on TV and just (hearing) from some of the guys who have played there, some of the guys who actually played from the Cubs, it’s a different atmosphere and it’s something I’m really looking forward to - seeing a packed house, crazy fans and stuff. It’s going to be a fun time,” he said.

Thursday’s assignment will be the beginning of a carefully monitored first full season after surgery for the 23-year-old. Strasburg will be on a strict limit of 150-160 innings this season, Johnson told reporters during spring training in Florida, and the manager said there was never a thought given to pushing Strasburg deeper into the rotation’s first go-around to make him available later in the season.

Nor was there ever a doubt that Strasburg would be Johnson’s opening day starting pitcher.

“No,” Johnson said, “and I don’t think in his mind, either.”

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