So, Strasburg, how was your first day of high school?
(photo by Toni Sandys)
Commencing their first formal day of spring training, a morning of basic drills for pitchers and catchers, the Washington Nationals divided their players into workout groups, such that Group 2A included right-hander Joel Peralta, left-hander Matt Chico, right-hander Tyler Walker, left-hander Aaron Thompson, and lastly a right-hander known to at least a few of his teammates as Jesus.
Why Jesus? "'Cause what's the first thing you say when you see him pitch?" centerfielder Nyjer Morgan said, excited just to answer his own question. "Jeee-sus!"
Stephen Strasburg now knows how unbounded fascination awaits even the activities he finds routine, so sometimes, he shakes his head at the silliness but plays along anyway. When Morgan hollered, "What's up Jesus?" Strasburg, from the other side of the clubhouse, looked up in acknowledgement. And later, when Strasburg threw an eight-minute, 37-pitch bullpen session on a usually-quiet practice area behind the matrix of ballfields, he witnessed the way in which his typical morning became his franchise's showcase event. His take on all that: "I am comfortable with that," he said.
For the Nationals, springs don't often start with such buzz. In 2006, the team's best player refused to take the field because he didn't like his new position. In 2008, the team's newest free agent catcher turned up in the Mitchell Report. In 2009, the team's general manager found himself under federal investigation, eventually resigning.
And now, the Nationals find themselves at the center of baseball's gaze, all because they employ a 21-year-old who performs his drills alongside everybody, and yet looks like nobody else.
"That's what he is," said pitcher Drew Storen, a No. 1 pick (10th overall) in 2009. "That's honestly what I told him. I said, 'You're basically LeBron.' He just doesn't realize it. He's a low-key guy. He enjoys pitching, but he doesn't understand the attention. But people have never seen this talent. ... He has unbelievable stuff, and it's not raw, it's polished. It's like when you have a video game and you can create a player and you can just try to make him perfect. That's Strasburg."
The Nationals drafted Strasburg last June, signed him last August, and sent him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League. But none of that exposure tempered the intrigue of Sunday morning's workout, where roughly 40 players worked unnoticed, and where one attracted a crowd visible from satellite.
At 10:40 a.m., coach Bobby Henley tugged on his airhorn, signaling Group 2A to the bullpen area -- 10 pitching mounds, positioned side-by-side like boxes at a driving range. Strasburg took a middle mound, opposite catcher Derek Norris, also a top prospect. ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" television truck hummed not far away. National reporters, along with roughly 75 fans, pushed against the fence. Future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez took a crouch and watched Strasburg from behind the mound. Team president Stan Kasten stood directly behind Rodriguez. Four members of Washington's front office observed from a parked golf cart, and almost every pitching coach in the organization paced behind the five pitchers.
For the next eight minutes, as Strasburg worked, it was all hissing air and popping leather. Cameras stuttered. ("About every pitch that went by I heard a click-click-click-click," Norris said.)
Norris, familiar with Strasburg's repertoire from last fall, took note of the pitcher's improved two-seamer, a mid-90s torpedo that Strasburg hopes can complement his four-seam fastball, his slider and change-up. Strasburg honed the pitch this winter. In an early-afternoon interview session with 15-odd media members, Strasburg gave his longest answer when asked about that pitch.
"It's a part of being a pitcher," he said. "With a wooden bat, if you can locate a good two-seam fastball you can get right in on their hands all day. If you learn to command it, it's another pitch in your repertoire. ... You've just got to show a hitter all these different looks and keep them off-balance."
Last season, Strasburg at times expressed alarm at the media attention. But now, he no longer asks for peace and quiet. He called the fan presence "pretty crazy," but also apologized that he couldn't sign autographs for everybody during his workout. He said he just wants to "enjoy this experience," no matter whether he starts the season in the minors or big leagues.
"Just from the past, being the No. 1 pick in the draft doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be successful at the pro level," Strasburg said. "All these guys here have been successful and are successful. So you really just want to learn from them as much as you can. It's just like college. I'm an incoming freshman again. You've got to learn from the veterans."
Barring extraordinary circumstances, Strasburg will start the year in the minors, perhaps with Class A Potomac. Manager Jim Riggleman provided the clearest sign yet on Sunday that Washington wants to delay Strasburg's arrival in the big leagues, saying, "I wouldn't really want to say that he's competing for a spot in the rotation. I think we're open-minded, but... he could pitch real well down here, but we still might feel like the development, the process is to be respected of going through the system and getting really used to the rigors of throwing every fifth day [in the minor leagues]."
As a result, the big league life is temporary, soon to be interrupted, and Strasburg must work like everybody else. Following the morning drills, Strasburg returned to a near-empty clubhouse and changed into gym clothes, just so he could spend an hour on some conditioning. A Lady Antebellum song played over the clubhouse speakers, but otherwise, Strasburg had a moment of quiet. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace tossed Strasburg a clean pair of clothes and joked, "So, how was your first day of high school?"
Strasburg just chuckled, nodded, and trotted to the gym.
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