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Nationals plan to push Strasburg later in spring

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Davey Johnson sat in the visitor's dugout at the Mets' Tradition Field, 90 minutes before the Nationals' Grapefruit League opener, which Stephen Strasburg started, and talked about -- what else? -- innings counts.

The two subjects, Strasburg and innings limits, dominated national headlines in 2012 and should be put to bed by the time the right-hander takes the mound on April 1 for Opening Day in Washington. But for now, Strasburg will be kept under watch like any ace early in a longer-than-usual Spring Training.

Strasburg was on a 45-pitch limit Saturday, using 42 of them over two innings against the Mets in a 5-3 loss. He gave up a two-run homer to Ruben Tejada in the first inning, when he cited overexcitement, before settling down in the second.

"He knows to just work on his location, build his arm up," Johnson said. "I'm not worried about him at all. He threw the ball good."

Of Strasburg's 42 pitches thrown, 24 were strikes. They were primarily fastballs. He went to a full count against four of the nine batters he saw.

"I get the adrenaline going and as much as I try and tell myself to slow down, I just can't," Strasburg said. "I threw a couple good breaking balls there in the second inning. My fastball command got better, sinker seemed to be working pretty well -- probably throw it a little more next time -- but it was a good first outing."

Because of the schedule, Strasburg could make as many as seven Grapefruit League starts. With that in mind, Johnson will probably have his right-hander on a slower program to begin the year.

"You try to have a progression, just a little more each time," Johnson said. "You kind of push him -- I'd say when he's got two more starts, you kind of taper him down. But being that we're starting early, all I want is for him to be ready to throw 100 pitches Opening Day."

Strasburg, of course, was shut down on Sept. 7 last season at 159 1/3 innings while the Nationals were in their first pennant race since moving to Washington.

General manager Mike Rizzo's decision to protect Strasburg after 2010 Tommy John surgery -- something the organization has done and continues to do with its pitchers -- was widely criticized across baseball, and its impact will only be seen in time.

"Last year, I was preparing for the full year and it was unfortunate that they decided to make it a little shorter than I hoped," Strasburg said. "I'm not really doing anything different this year, just the experience I got last year is going to prepare me for the mental grind as much as the physical."

Strasburg was an All-Star last year, going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.155 WHIP. He's been granted a clean bill of health this season, with no restrictions.

"He's our horse," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I think that's what he wants to be. 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."