HOUSTON — Seven years later, Stephen Strasburg has come for his World Series.
The powerhouse right-hander who will start Game 2 here Wednesday night no longer comes packaged with the suffocating noise that accompanied him back when he arrived as the most-hyped pitcher of our time. The passage of the seasons has allowed him to breathe. To grow. To enjoy even a modicum, every now and then, of quiet.
"We all have our different stories," he noted upon arriving at Minute Maid Park on Monday, a day before the Nationals would take a 1-0 series lead with a 5-4 win Tuesday night.
And so we do. The trick is to eventually reach the place where we can tell our own, rather than have them told for us.
On the postseason mound this month, Strasburg, finally, has arrived at that place.
"Him and Harp, those guys came up with unfair hype," Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured member of the Nationals, said of Strasburg and their ex-teammate, Bryce Harper. "People were talking the last couple of years like his career wasn't a good career, which is silly.
"You look at his numbers. We're going to ride our pitching. It's what we've been doing all year."
Strasburg this year led the National League in innings pitched (209) and wins (18), was second in strikeouts (251) and ranked fifth in WHIP (1.04). Only two other NL pitchers started more games than Strasburg's 33: San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner and Philadelphia's Aaron Nola.
His playoff numbers are even more striking: In four games and 22 innings this autumn, he is 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA. And in seven career postseason games (six starts), Strasburg is 4-2 with a 1.10 ERA.
But part of his story always will be the way the Nationals kept him cocooned in protective bubble wrap early in his career, most notably in 2012—his first full season in the majors—when they shut him down at 159.1 innings pitched in early September. They were in the thick of the pennant race and finished that season with the best record in the majors at 98-64.
This injury-prevention plan was a hotly debated move at the time and, seven years later, you can still find plenty of folks on both side of that fence. The only truth is this: Strasburg watched without contributing as the Nationals were stunned by St. Louis in a Division Series, one of their best pitchers left idling in the dugout garage.
Don't worry, the Nationals all but shouted at the time. We're loaded. We'll be back and Stephen will have plenty of chances.
Yeah, well. Not so much.
Starting for the Astros opposite Strasburg in Game 2 will be Justin Verlander, who, interestingly, was in similar circumstances back in his first full season in the majors, in 2006. The Detroit Tigers were surprise contenders that summer and ran the October table all the way to the World Series before losing to St. Louis.
Like Strasburg in '12, Verlander was in his Age 23 season. But the Tigers allowed him to pitch until the end. He threw 186 regular-season innings and another 21.2 in the playoffs. He said the Tigers never discussed shutting him down.
"I don't know what my reaction would have been," Verlander, who posted a 5.82 ERA that postseason, told B/R on Monday. "Not good. But, obviously, I was dragging. I had run out of gas. But I needed to be out there. We didn't have another starter.
"And, honestly, I look back at it as a moment that I almost taught my body how to pitch through October. I was almost like, 'OK, hey, this is what's expected of you, this is what you're going to have to do.' And you're not hurt, right? I didn't hurt my arm. I was just out of gas. So it was, 'OK, figure it out.'"
In many ways, Verlander said, it was not unlike when he made the transition from pitching once a week at Old Dominion University to starting every fifth day in pro ball.
"Those days in between, I was shot," Verlander said. "My bullpens were horrible, everything was bad. But that next year, it was like my body knew what to expect. It was like, 'OK, I can do this.' The same thing happened working through an October season and then working 200 innings season after season. You just teach yourself how to do it."
We all have our different stories.
"At the beginning of his career, I don't think he enjoyed it," Zimmerman said. "It was almost unfair to him, those expectations he had as a kid."
As with Harper, Zimmerman sometimes wondered how Strasburg could breathe from underneath the weight of those heaping expectations. Especially in the beginning, if Strasburg didn't strike out 14 hitters a game (as he did in his MLB debut versus Pittsburgh on June 8, 2010) or threaten to fire a no-hitter, it was as if his outing was a disappointment.
Strasburg is 31 now, with a wife, two young daughters, a seven-year, $175 million contract (with an opt-out clause after this season if he decides to invoke it) and a full-time home in the Washington, D.C. area. He seems more at ease, but that's relative. He is intensely private, suspicious by nature and, in some ways, seems scarred by the talons of those early expectations.
For example, he reflexively deflects any question that might be perceived as leading even in the slightest direction toward any possible shortcoming. Strasburg once said he defines a true ace as a workhorse who piles up 200-inning seasons. So it would figure that he'd be willing to discuss what leading the NL in innings pitched this year meant to him, but old habits are hard to break.
"Honestly, I don't really look at numbers," Strasburg, who now has thrown 200 or more innings twice in his career, said Monday. "Going into the season, the goal for me is pretty simple: Just take the ball every time they wanted me to. I didn't know what it was going to look like, but I really felt like at this point in my career there's no looking back. Leave it all out there."
He always has been laser-focused and exceptionally prepared, sometimes to a fault. Zimmerman sees a maturation in Strasburg both as a person and as a pitcher. The former has contributed not only to Strasburg's recent run of success but also to his suddenly more pliable nature. He pitched in relief during Washington's wild-card win over Milwaukee, and for the first time in his career, he pitched on short rest in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Dodgers.
"A lot of pitchers, when they're young, they let little things bother them," Zimmerman says. "A strike that isn't called, an error. The way he shakes things off now, it's all business. Obviously, his stuff is second to none."
Gone are the days when the uncomfortable slope of a mound that wasn't packed properly will throw him off of his game. That story is real, by the way. It happened in his second MLB start, in Cleveland in 2010.
"He still has that in him," said Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart, who goes back with Strasburg to the Arizona Fall League in 2009. "What time's the anthem? If the anthem isn't right when they say it is, he's like, 'Are you....' And I'm like, 'I'm not in control of the anthem, it said 6:57.' He looks at me now like, 'Yeah, you're probably right. You don't have any control of that, do you?'"
No longer does he let those little things zap his concentration and ruffle his game. And, today's Strasburg comes with a smile that escapes his face a little more than it once did, and, shockingly, dancing. The Nationals hold short, impromptu dugout dance parties after home runs, and Gerardo Parra, a backup outfielder who also is Washington's self-appointed director of entertainment and good vibes, has made it his personal project to include Strasburg.
"Ah man, I don't know how [those videos] got out," Strasburg said, chuckling. "It's been a process. You kind of just have to roll with it. They've asked me to dance so many times, I'm bound to get a little better."
He probably won't be invited onto Dancing With the Stars anytime soon, but it's a start. Strasburg simply is one of those guys who, even when he's at his loosest, sometimes still carries himself as if his shirt is too tight. It's just him. And it's part of why his teammates get such a kick out of it when they induce a smile or a dance.
"I'm happy to see Stephen happy right now," Parra said. "Everybody talked about Stephen as such a serious guy. He's a great guy. He's got a great heart. And I'm so happy right now that he's enjoying [himself]."
Certainly, and this is something we had no way of knowing during the shutdown year of 2012, October suits him. And now, as he finally prepares to make his World Series debut, the Astros know they've got a battle on their hands. Alex Bregman talked about Strasburg's lethal changeup and how the key is to be "selectively aggressive." Meaning, hitters can't chase out of the strike zone, but they've got to be locked and loaded for a pitch they can handle.
"I see a guy who's got tremendous stuff and really knows how to use it," Verlander said. "He keeps guys off balance. Even his offspeed goes two different directions. He can kind of get you going backwards and forwards and in and out. It's a pretty deadly combination when you can get batters in between on all your stuff."
So here he is, having come for his first World Series, in some ways seven years too late but in other ways right on time. Watch him move around freely outside of his comfort zone. Look at him pitching in relief, starting on short rest, refusing to let the little things beat him anymore. Count all of that a part of the deadly combination, too. It's all part of the package.
"We have a lot of guys who like to have fun," he shrugged. "And I'm not going to be Debbie Downer."
At one time, he would have been.
But we all have our different stories, don't we?
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.
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