VIERA, Fla. - There was a time not too long ago when Stephen Strasburg would have thrown a mini fit had he allowed a two-run homer to the light-hitting Ruben Tejada and needed 31 pitches to get out of his first inning of spring.
That time might’ve even been last February.
“I think last year at this time, if he would’ve done what he did in that first inning, we would have seen gloves flying, cups flying,” shortstop Ian Desmond said yesterday.
“He was pretty fairly composed today.”
Strasburg’s competitive spirit will always be there, and as Desmond pointed out, that’s part of what makes him so good and is a reason why his teammates enjoy playing behind him. He cares so much about his performance and not letting his team down that he often places enormous amounts of pressure on himself, which isn’t really that healthy this early in spring.
But entering his fourth major league season, Strasburg is starting to slowly learn to pace himself a little bit. Speaking with reporters after his two-inning outing yesterday, Strasburg was loose, cracking a few smiles and talking about how he’s less focused on the results of his spring start than he used to be.
That’s especially important this year, with spring training even longer than usual because of the World Baseball Classic. The Nationals still have 33 exhibition games remaining before opening day, meaning Strasburg will probably get six more chances to put in work before the Nats host the Marlins on April 1 at Nats Park.
Then there are 162 regular season games, and for the first time in his career (barring injury), Strasburg should be able to get the ball for one out of every five of them through the entire season. On top of that, if all goes as they’ve planned, Strasburg and the Nats will be playing deep into October, as well.
“This time you can’t really read into whether you have a good outing or a bad outing in spring training. It doesn’t count,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t go toward your regular-season record, so this is the time where I just need to stay the course, not read into things too much, not try and go out there and throw in the bullpen and right the ship for the next time.
“Just keep it all the same and just know that as time goes on, the more and more times I get out there on the mound, it’s going to get a little bit better.”
Strasburg’s growth wasn’t just evident when he was on the mound during yesterday’s game, throwing fewer off-speed pitches and working mostly on fastball command, or when he was opting not to smack stacks of cups to the ground in frustration inside the Nationals dugout. It was also evident after his start was over.
In past springs, Strasburg would respond to poor outings by going straight to the ‘pen. He’d throw and throw and throw some more until he was happy with how his stuff felt, and normally, he says, that would leave him in a better place come his next spring start.
But Strasburg’s goal this season is to throw 200 innings and be a workhorse at the top of the Nationals’ rotation. To get that label, he needs to have the juice left in his arm in those crucial starts in September and October, which is why there was no lengthy postgame bullpen session for Strasburg yesterday.
“He’s our horse. I think that’s what he wants to be,” Desmond said. “He obviously carries that, and you can see that from the way he works and carries himself around the clubhouse. He wants to be that guy.
“If that’s what you want to be, then here you go, now’s your chance to show everybody. He’s proven his ability at the big league level, and now it’s just about showing that durability. I’m just excited to watch him.”
Yesterday was the first step. Strasburg knows many more await.
“I want to be one of the best in the game,” Strasburg said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”