WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- Stephen Strasburg has been here before. Three times he has started on Opening Day, when optimism swirls around Nationals Park. Optimism that the team will finally get over the hump and advance past the National League Division Series. And optimism that Strasburg, and his seemingly
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- Stephen Strasburg has been here before. Three times he has started on Opening Day, when optimism swirls around Nationals Park. Optimism that the team will finally get over the hump and advance past the National League Division Series. And optimism that Strasburg, and his seemingly limitless potential -- even at 28 years old, the word "potential" gets thrown around with him as if he were still a prospect -- can complete a full season healthy.
Yes, he has been on the mound for the start of the season. He has dealt with all the extraneous pregame ballyhoo that comes with the day and threatens to take him out of his routine. He has been there and performed well. In three Opening Day starts, he has a 2.25 ERA and the Nats are 3-0.
Being there at the start has rarely been Strasburg's problem.
This season -- the first of the seven-year, $175 million contract extension Strasburg signed last May -- is never going to be judged by what happens in April. In a way, it's a microcosm of the Nationals as a whole. They have been preseason favorites and impressed during the regular season, but after three early postseason exits in the past five years, the success of this season will be based on what they do in October. The Nats have dreamed of getting to the first World Series in franchise history on the backs of their two elite pitchers at the top of the rotation, Max Scherzer and Strasburg.
But Strasburg must be there at the end.
"I think that's the ultimate goal for me," Strasburg said. "I think the numbers are going to be what they're going to be at the end of the year, but I just want to be there at the end. I want to show up and I want to be just another donkey, another horse in the rotation that's going to show up every fifth day."
Take a look at what a healthy Stephen Strasburg can do.
He was healthy for a little more than a year from June 23, 2015 -- when he came off the disabled list after being limited by ankle and upper back injuries -- to Aug. 1, 2016. Then he began an awful three-start stretch that would eventually force him back on the DL with right elbow soreness. He made 33 starts in that span, and went 23-3 with a 2.30 ERA, and 271 strikeouts in 215 2/3 innings. He was brilliant.
It was as if Strasburg had reached his full potential during his run through the first half of the 2016 season when he was 13-0, made the All-Star team and was among the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award.
"It was unbelievable," said left-hander Giovany Gonzalez, Strasburg's closest friend on the team. "It wasn't even fair. It like getting the cheat codes to a PlayStation game."
And then, just like that, it was over.
Strasburg left the mound on Sept. 7 with what would be later diagnosed as a torn pronator tendon. The Nats had to begin another postseason run without him. He began throwing bullpens during the NLDS, with the hopes at a comeback attempt if the Nationals kept advancing. Strasburg now admits that even returning for the World Series would have been doubtful, but he wanted to get to a point where he could at least give manager Dusty Baker the option.
"If we got to that point, I probably would have lobbied to come out of the bullpen," Strasburg said.
But the Dodgers eliminated the Nats in five games while Strasburg watched from the bench.
"I mean, that was probably the hardest thing to deal with," he said. "I'm hoping I learned a valuable lesson from last year. The first half started so good, it was almost like unbelievable. And the second half was pretty much the opposite.
"My history and stuff, to wind up hurt, not being able to compete with the guys and be there for the team, I mean, it's still tough. There's nothing I can do about it now, I can sit here and just like let it eat at me and continue to let it bother me, or I can try to be proactive and try to learn from it. That's the only option that I have."
Strasburg spent a large chunk of his offseason in D.C. for the first time. He and his wife, Rachel, purchased a house in Virginia and are still in the process of packing up and moving from San Diego. He helped out more during the offseason, but admits now she has been in charge of most of the work while he focuses on baseball. It's a new process for both of them, a change they are welcoming even though both their families live in the San Diego area.
Strasburg shocked many across baseball when he decided to sign the extension last May. It had become popular thought that he would head into free agency and end up in California, but he has become comfortable with Washington, and the Strasburgs have found a strong support system. They have come to love Old Town, Alexandria, even though Strasburg described it as pretty much the opposite of where he grew up. They like that the houses are smaller and older and that it feels like a community. The downtown area reminds him of downtown Palo Alto. Rachel often enjoys walking around downtown, taking the dog for a walk or wandering around to find a good restaurant.
"Now it feels like home," Strasburg said. "Home on the East Coast."
Being in Washington more this offseason also allowed Strasburg to work out at the Nationals' facilities with the club's staff. They tweaked his conditioning and workout routine to use more of his body weight -- pullups, pushups, dips -- instead of increasing weight in the weight room. He combined the workouts with more long distance running along the beach back home in San Diego, something he recalled doing more frequently during and before the 2014 season, the only year he made every start.
"He works as hard or harder than anybody I've ever been around," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "And you can tell by the conditioning of the way he stepped into Spring Training this year. He was off the charts in every metric that we analyze."
Strasburg also spent the offseason developing his motion from the stretch, which he has utilized all spring. He watched film on pitchers such as Yu Darvish from the Rangers and Carlos Carrasco from the Indians. Strasburg believes throwing from the stretch helps him repeat his mechanics more easily.
It's another part of Strasburg's evolution during the past few years. He might always be an introvert, but those around him say he is more open now than when he first arrived in the Majors. When he is in the clubhouse, he is often laughing and making jokes with the rest of the pitchers.
On the mound, he is constantly tweaking and even adding. Last year, it was the slider/cutter combo, this year it is pitching exclusively from the stretch. He has found a good complement in pitching coach Mike Maddux, who constantly challenges his staff to try new things. -- "You never know, you might be a good lacrosse player," he quips.
"Stras is a perfectionist," Maddux said. "He's not going to leave any stone uncovered that might be a little bit of information or something that's going to help make him better."
The Nationals plan to have Strasburg throw less in between starts this season. His bullpen sessions have been shorter this spring because he doesn't have to throw from both the windup and stretch. There are times when his bullpens last longer than expected because he is always trying to perfect something. Others will watch him pitch and compliment him on a good bullpen, while he walks away stewing on a couple of pitches he did not execute.
"I think my expectations are higher than anybody else," he said.
He will reduce the usage of the slider/cutter pitch he began throwing last season, not because of its effectiveness but because he feels it added undue stress to his arm. It became his second most frequently used pitch behind his fastball, and when he recalled throwing the slider to opposing pitchers, he realized that perhaps he had begun abusing it. That does not mean he will do away with it. He'll still use it to get outs, but he does not want to drift too far from what has made him successful up to this point.
These are all changes made with an eye toward keeping Strasburg on the mound for a full season.
"From a personal level for him, he just wants to get through the season," Gonzalez said. "He wants to stay healthy, he knows he can do it and he works too hard. He's in the gym every second of the day. He's constantly in the training room, getting loose, stretched, whatever he has to do. You can barely see him in the clubhouse because he's always getting work done.
"I've always said he's way too talented for his own body. He's a super-freak athlete and his body is trying to catch up to him. I've seen his workouts and if I tried to do half the things he did I probably wouldn't be here right now. I'd be in crutches or a full body cast. He's Stephen, man, always trying to learn something new about this game."
And the most difficult part is it might not matter. Pitching is an inexact science, and no one has found a way to ensure pitchers will stay heathy. All these changes and tweaks could be for naught and Strasburg could still spend time on the DL this season. He could pitch a full season and maybe none of this stuff even mattered.
"I think that's kind of the reality check that some guys get," Strasburg said. "I think the way they handle it depends on how they've been going about it, if it's based on the results or if it's based on the process. I think if you look at the process, I think you get more prospective if you have had an injury that has caused you to miss some time.
"The good times and bad, I think there's something to learn from. There's a way to grow as a person and not just a player, that's the one thing that I've learned through this process."
The process begins again Monday afternoon at Nationals Park, when Strasburg takes the mound on the first day aiming to be there through the last day.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.