Nats’ quest for a World Series begins today with Strasburg leading the way

A long winter and a seemingly even longer spring training are behind us. The first pitch of the regular season was thrown last night in Houston, and this afternoon, the Nationals will kick off their 2013 campaign, one that comes with the highest of expectations.

Happy opening day, everyone.

This day couldn’t come soon enough for the Nationals, who saw their 2012 World Series hopes come crumbling down last Oct. 12. Same goes for their opening day starter, Stephen Strasburg, whose season ended early and abruptly last year, when he was shut down following a Sept. 7 start after reaching his innings limit.

With Strasburg on the mound this afternoon against the Marlins, the Nats will embark on a season unlike any other in their brief history. The Nats have been picked as the favorites to win the World Series by the sports books in Vegas. A host of national publications have selected them as the team to beat. Heck, even the Nationals’ own manager has set the goal for this season as, “World Series or bust.”

All eyes will be on them this season, and the bull’s eye is mounted squarely on their backs.

“We know how good we are, we know what we’re capable of,” Danny Espinosa said. “On paper, we’re great. Obviously, we need to go out there and perform.”

strasburg red pitching sidebar.jpgMuch like the Nationals as a whole, Strasburg also enters this season surrounded by lofty expectations. The right-hander won 15 games and posted a 3.16 ERA in his shortened season last year, and this time around, now in his fourth big league season and without any limitations on his workload, Strasburg has many analysts calling for a Cy Young type of season.

“I think the biggest thing this year, he feels finally he’s got the shackles off of him,” manager Davey Johnson said of his ace. “There’s not going to be any restraints on him as there have been over the last couple years.”

This spring, we continued to see Strasburg evolve and mature as a pitcher. He talked about wanting to get contact early in counts in order to limit the number of pitches thrown to each hitter, allowing him to work deeper into games. He said he was focusing on calming himself down while on the mound, trying to avoid getting too amped up and being unable to repeat his mechanics. He continued to work on holding runners and not getting so focused on the guy in the batter’s box that he forgot about what was going on around him.

All of that was done with the goal of being “a workhorse in the rotation,” a big-game pitcher who can be counted on to work deep into games and give his team quality innings every fifth day.

“I’m 24 years old. This is my first opportunity to pitch a full year in the big leagues. I’m still learning how to do it,” Strasburg said.

“It’s going to be a big test for me. I haven’t gone over seven innings yet in my (big league) career. I know in the past when I’ve been allowed to do that, I feel like my game’s gotten better later on in the game. The hitters change their approach later in the game, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the game changes in the later innings when you’re still out there, because I still haven’t experienced that yet.”

If Strasburg follows the path laid out by Jordan Zimmermann, who last year pitched his first full season following Tommy John surgery, he might not be pitching into the eighth inning or beyond too many times this season. In his 32 regular season starts last year, Zimmermann didn’t go more than seven innings once, but he did finish with 195 2/3 innings under his belt, the result of 26 outings of at least six innings.

Should Strasburg be able to keep his pitch counts low and use the seven guys standing behind him in the field, he’ll have a shot at some lengthy outings. That might not happen today in his first start of the season, largely because Johnson likes to hook his pitchers early in games in the season’s first month in order to ease them into action. Strasburg will also have that extra opening day energy working against him today, something that he experienced when he started the Nats’ season opener last season at Wrigley Field against the Cubs.

“I don’t think it’s any different than any first game of the year,” Strasburg said of today’s start. “The adrenaline’s going to be kicking in, mechanics probably aren’t going to be where you want them to be, and it’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable out there. But that’s where you’ve just got to go out there and pitch and trust your stuff and just get to a point to where you can assess where you’re at and build off that.

“I know I’m going to be mentally locked in. That’s the biggest thing. This is going to be an exciting opening day. We’ll have a huge crowd, probably, and I’ve just got to soak it all in, much like pitching at Wrigley last year.”

The defense of the National League East title, the pursuit of another playoff appearance, the quest for a World Series crown.

It all starts today at Nats Park, with an unrestrained Strasburg leading the way.

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