VIERA, Fla. - It's not much of a surprise, but it is official: Stephen Strasburg will be the Nationals' opening day starter.
Manager Matt Williams announced after tonight's 2-0 loss to the Astros that Strasburg will get the ball for the Nats on opening day, March 31 in New York against the Mets.
It will be the third straight season Strasburg has started opening day for the Nats. He'll be followed in the rotation by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, in that order. The rest of the rotation is still undetermined due to Doug Fister's injury absence and the battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation between Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan.
Why Strasburg as the choice for opening day?
"Just because his experience there," Williams said. "Has done it before. Certainly the way it's all structured, he's in line to do that. And he's earned it. So he'll toe that slab for us opening day. ...
"He wants to be even better than he is. Coming into spring, certainly one of his objectives was to hold baserunners better. He's working on those things here because he wants to be as good as he can possibly be. That's good. He's got great stuff, he's certainly got experience on opening day."
Strasburg only went 8-9 last season, but look past the win-loss numbers and you'll notice just how good the right-hander was. In a career-high 183 innings, Strasburg posted a 3.00 ERA, a 1.049 WHIP and had 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranked fourth in the National League.
Zimmermann was arguably the Nats' most consistent pitcher last season, and he won 19 games, but it will be Strasburg getting the ball on opening day.
Zimmermann has said that he doesn't care when he gets the ball, but Williams and the Nats' coaches still met with the righty to explain why he didn't get the opening day nod.
"We spoke to Jordan. He's good with whatever and wherever he pitches," Williams said. "Opening day is important, but the rest of the days are important, too. ...
"Every one of them is important, first and foremost. Two through 162 are important. Opening day is special and it's an honor for anyone who is chosen to go opening day. Is it more important than any other start he's going to make during the year? No. But it's opening day. And so he's ready for it. He's excited for it. And so are we."
Williams said that Gonzalez was slotted in between Strasburg and Zimmermann in part to break up the right-handers with a lefty. Gonzalez won 21 games in 2012.
The Nats will have to see how Fister, who is working back from elbow inflammation, gets through his start on Saturday and continues to progress before determining how he slots into their plans for the first week of the season. Because of two off-days in their first eight days of the regular season, the Nats have some flexibility there.
"We'll have to see how he reacts to all of his further work," Williams said of Fister. "But he looks good right now and will continue to progress."
Technically, the Nats don't need a fifth starter until April 6. They could have Strasburg start on April 5 on normal rest and then get a fifth starter to slot into the rotation after him, which could be a way to buy Fister a few extra days to build up arm strength before appearing in a regular season game.