VIERA, Fla. -- Right-hander Stephen Strasburg said it's an honor to be the Nationals' Opening Day starter for a third year in a row, and when he takes the hill against the Mets in New York at 1:10 p.m. ET on Monday, he wants to set the tone for what is expected to be a big year for the team.
The 25-year-old Strasburg, however, doesn't want an Opening Day assignment to be his greatest accomplishment. He wants to play in the postseason for the first time and help the Nationals win their first World Series title.
"I want to show teams from the first game on that we are going to go out there and compete," Strasburg said. "You are going to have to bring your best game to beat us. I really hope that I'm pushing to make starts in October. That's the thing, and it starts on Opening Day. You have to stay focused, keep working hard, make sure your stuff is there and still doing well in October."
Strasburg wasn't able to play in October for Washington in 2012 because he was on an innings limit after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. No big deal, right? The team will be even better in 2013, right? Hardly any changes were made to the roster of a 98-win team, leading Strasburg to expect the Nats to return to the postseason. He was mistaken. Despite a strong final month, the club topped out at 86 wins, missing the postseason.
"It was different for me in 2012," Strasburg said. "I was still young. Everybody was telling me [the late-season rest] was the right thing to do. Yeah, I was upset. I really didn't understand the magnitude. It started to sink in even more when we didn't make the playoffs last year. I thought we had a good team. … It just goes to show that sometimes the baseball gods aren't on your side, for some reason. I put everything in perspective. It's not as easy as it seems.
"Reaching the postseason is the goal for me and everybody else in this clubhouse. I think we have the opportunity and the potential to do that. All that really matters is sticking together, playing hard and not taking any days off. It's going to be a grind. We have to stick with it and keep pushing forward."
While he leads the effort to help the Nationals reach the postseason, Strasburg is showing a different side -- one that most haven't seen from him. Yes, he's still intense on the mound, but off the field, he is relaxed, more friendly.
In the past, media members had to pick their spots when talking to Strasburg, but he has grown comfortable in such situations. Being a first-time father can make one see things differently; Strasburg realizes he has to do more than just throw a baseball.
"He ironed some things out this offseason," teammate Ian Desmond said. "He looks like he is less intense, but more focused. It looks like his life is not hanging on every pitch. He looks ready to go."
There was a time early in Strasburg's career that he would seem to think too much about his starts, saddling himself with more pressure than necessary.
"I can speak [about] my experiences, and I'm sure it's similar to his," Desmond said. "But you want to become a big leaguer so bad. All you want to do is make it to the big leagues. [Strasburg's] situation is multiplied by 100 because he is in the spotlight from Day 1 in his professional career. But you want to fulfill all the expectations, not only from everyone else, but for yourself."
Strasburg now realizes that at times, the ball is not going to bounce his way, and he has his daughter to thank for being able to see the game from a different perspective.
"It's huge, [being a father]," Strasburg said. "Being a dad -- it's hard putting it into words. ... For me, it was easily good start, bad start. It was kind of something that I would constantly be playing over in my head -- especially afterward, and sometimes before. And now, you go home and you have a job to do, so you really can't think about those things. It's kind of nice to separate work and home."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats.