On eve of Strasburg’s debut, Nationals try to make phenom feel

Everyone that’s been around Stephen Strasburg has a story - about the first time they saw him pitch, about how the ball explodes, not just spins, off his long fingers, about how special and different he is. Steve McCatty’s best ones are just about Strasburg trying to be normal.

McCatty, who became the Nationals’ pitching coach a week before they drafted Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s draft, is now charged with overseeing the development of the most highly-touted pitching prospect in a generation. And yet, when McCatty first met the 21-year-old, he found a kid whose mind hadn’t caught up to the fame gathering behind his 102-mph fastball.

“When he was up (in Washington) last year, his fiancee was in town, and we had an off-day,” McCatty said. “I said, ‘Hey, what’d you do?’ He says, ‘Well, I took my fiancee out to The Capital Grille. I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I’m sure he can afford it, but that’s pretty expensive.’ He goes, ‘Man, I know. I only had one beer, and she had a margarita, and it was $73.’”


McCatty is on a roll now - he’s mined rich comedic ore talking about the kid who’d just signed the biggest draft pick contract in MLB history reacting with alarm at white-table restaurant prices. So he continues.

“He had another one about his rental car. He rented his car for the month, and then he came to Washington. It’s like he didn’t know, but he was kind of stuck with the rental car,” McCatty said. “He said, ‘I just paid for the rental car.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be there when you get back - why didn’t you just turn it in?’ He says, ‘I can’t turn it in. If I do, it’s going to cost me a little more money.’

“I said, ‘How much money?’ He said, ‘About $150.’ I said, ‘Well, is that going to break you?’ He’s non-assuming, even keel. He’s just...Stephen.”

The attention paid to Strasburg on Tuesday will not be to just Stephen. It will be to The Visitor, as they called him at San Diego State - the freak with the electrifying fastball, the dive-bombing slider, the Olympic experience and the potential to possibly throw an ailing franchise on his back. At least a dozen national media members are expected to cover the game - which qualifies as a media crush in spring training. MASN changed its spring coverage plans to televise the game, which will be picked up by MLB’s streaming TV package and replayed at night. For each pitch Strasburg throws in his allotted two innings, there will be thousands of words written, platitudes spoken and images captured.

Even his teammates are eager for the spectacle. Scott Olsen left the Nationals’ clubhouse this afternoon with a mischievous grin on his face - “Tomorrow is going to be fun,” he said. And Drew Storen, who for his status as the No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft still acts like an awed spectator around Strasburg, tweeted, “Looking forward to seeing Stras and (young Tigers ace Rick) Porcello chuck it tomorrow, if you are in the Viera area, probably should head out to the ballpark.”

Yet his teammates know when tomorrow comes, it will be their job to make him feel like he’s just ... Stephen.

Strasburg, who declined to speak to reporters on Monday, is tolerant of the attention, if wary of its potential to sidetrack his trajectory toward pitching’s upper environs. After his first bullpen session last month - attended by more than 100 fans - he said, “I guess it goes with the territory, being a No. 1 overall pick. You’ve just got to learn to accept it, and put on your smile.”

First baseman Adam Dunn sounded like he had plenty of razzing in store to make Strasburg feel like a rookie, not a phenom. The Nationals will limit 6-foot-4 right-hander to two innings, and those handling Strasburg know he’s already managed bigger stages than this.

“I’m just really impressed with his demeanor,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Very humble, very grounded. Just all ears. He really responds to anything Steve McCatty’s had to say to him - other staff members, veteran players, teammates. It’s his personality. He’s kind of quiet, reserved. A very mature guy though. Recently married, and just in a good place in his life. He’s really got some good advice from people like (Padres Hall of Famer) Tony Gwynn (who was Strasburg’s coach at San Diego State), and his parents and so forth, who have told him you respect veteran players, you don’t open your mouth much and you’re all ears, and that’s what he’s done.”

The Tigers will be the first team to show Strasburg where he belongs in baseball’s pecking order - he’ll face All-Stars like first baseman Miguel Cabrera and outfielder Magglio Ordonez, and Cabrera told the Detroit Free Press on Monday he’s excited to face Strasburg. “It’s going to be exciting facing him,” Cabrera said. “Everybody is talking about him. He’s the future for Washington. Let’s see what he’s got. I’m excited to face him.”

Those showdowns, in the end, will be nothing more than data points by which to measure Strasburg’s progress - a kind of starting point on a developmental growth chart. They will not guarantee an end to the Nationals’ 100-loss seasons, a Hall of Fame career for Strasburg or a championship season for Washington anytime soon.

Several strata below all the hype, bluster and intrigue, it will just be a reserved 21-year-old taking his deceptively fierce competitive streak and his fastball - in which there is nothing subtle whatsoever - to a mound in Florida, facing a team that was a game from the playoffs last year and seeing what he’s got.

He’ll just be ... Stephen.

“(Nationals scout) Wade Taylor called me last year. He said, ‘Cat, I saw Strassy throw. It’s the easiest 102 you’ve ever seen.’ I said, ‘First of all, I’ve never seen 102, and I can’t imagine it being easy,’” McCatty said. “He’s got a special thing. We’ll see how special it is when he gets out there. I’m sure he’ll be absolutely fine. But he’s just got to be Stephen. He can’t be what we all perceive to him to be, or think he should long to be.”