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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.

By Chico Harlan  |  February 21, 2010; 4:55 PM ET
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Next: Viera, Day IV: The Strasburg reports


good first day. optimism high. happiness pervades. even ESPN's Baseball Tonight special on the Nats today made me giddy. have to keep it all in perspective, grains of salt and all, but things are definitely looking up.

we'll be fun to watch this year. next year... oh, baby!

Posted by: TheBorg | February 21, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Might the Nats even have a sunday night game nationally televised, say, sometime in, oh, maybe mid to late June???

Posted by: cokedispatch | February 21, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm, I think he's just one pitcher. You still need say 5-6. That catcher is also a prospect that is probably desperately needed. One guy does not a world series make and he hasn't pitched a game yet.

Posted by: periculum | February 21, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

It may actually be more important to know how Aaaron Thompson looks given Detwiler's untimely injury? And you have to wonder about Scott Olsen's shoulder?

Hopefully, they take their sweet time with Stasburg and not burn his arm down as has apparently happened to so many Nats (including EX-Nats) pitchers. Let him grown into the role, and not be forced into it.

Posted by: periculum | February 21, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

He's one guy who plays every fifth day if you're lucky. Still, he's apparently not just *some guy who plays occasionally.* Teams hype, media hype, fans hype, but I'm getting the feeling his teammates don't. "You're basically LeBron" coming from a peer tells me something.

He may or may not win any or all of the 300 games Mark "guaranteed," but no, he really isn't just another pitcher.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 21, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Lannan + Marquis, and pray for 3.

Posted by: natbiscuits | February 21, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Hey, if the nickname sticks, does he have to pay Flores for the rights?

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 21, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

And how about adding Nats Insider to the blogroll over here? Huh? Please?

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 21, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

So, it's NOT just us ...
Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports, via Twitter (, that the Rays were in the mix for Johnny Damon until the end, bidding more than every team but the Tigers.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 21, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

When ever Ladson talks about the rotation over on, he always says that there are 2 rotation spots "up for grabs." Has anybody seen who he thinks the third guy definitely in the rotation is besides Marquis and Lannan?

Posted by: SpashCity | February 22, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

The impression I have gotten, is that Ladson is counting Olsen. Riggleman of course is on record as counting Mock as his number 3. I personally think that IF Olsen is healthy the # 3 should be his to lose. But of course that's a big IF. If all goes according to plan the Opening Day rotation and the All-Star break rotation will look remarkably different with Strassburg and Wang replacing whoever isnot performing. So the #3 could be a #5 by then.

Posted by: natbiscuits | February 22, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Are Olsen and Chico pitching these bullpen sessions at this point? Nice to know Strasburg is bringin' it but more important in the immediate future to know how the walking (hopefully former) wounded guys are. I can be as hopeful as the next fan but losing all those games in the first two months the last two years had a bigger impact on enjoying the season than everything - I'd just like to avoid that again.

Posted by: natslifer | February 22, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Are Olsen and Chico pitching these bullpen sessions at this point?

Posted by: natslifer | February 22, 2010 9:29 AM

I don't know if Olsen threw a full bullpen, but he looked healthy and happy throwing with the rest of the staff in the Baseball Tonight clips yesterday (footage from Sunday AM, I believe).

Posted by: Kev29 | February 22, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Ladson (@washingnats) tweeted earlier today that Lannan, Olsen, and Storen were all throwing bullpens today.

Posted by: SpashCity | February 22, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

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