WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Davey Johnson noticed something different about ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg this year. It has nothing to do with what he does on the mound. He is still one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Johnson noticed that Strasburg, 24, is much more relaxed off the field. Why? He can finally be one of the guys on the team. Gone are the days that Strasburg was on an innings limit after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. If the Nationals reach the postseason this October, Strasburg will be on the playoff roster. He will not be on the shelf like he was against the Cardinals last season.
"He just wants to be one of the boys," Johnson said. "He doesn't want any limitations on him. He wants to be here from the beginning to the end. He hasn't really had that in his career. I think he is looking forward to it. I think he is more relaxed coming into this year."
Strasburg realizes he doesn't have to be perfect all the time. Strasburg no longer gets upset whenever he gives up a Spring Training home run. Take the game on March 22 against the Tigers. Strasburg gave up a monster shot to Matt Tuiasosopo in the second inning. Last season, Strasburg would have been upset, but he took things in stride this time.
"[In the past], if he gave up a home run, he would give the death stare," said pitching coach Steve McCatty. "I would talk to him, and he would get mad. Now, we talked about the home run to Tuiasosopo the other day. We know Strasburg was working on stuff. He was able to handle it better, even though it was Spring Training. Last year, Davey always sent me down there to talk to him because he wanted me to get yelled at."
Despite being one of the best pitchers in baseball, Strasburg let the attention of being on an innings limit get to him last season. This year, he's just focused on pitching and not reading into anything in a negative way.
"I noticed last year, I got a little stressed out," Strasburg said. "[This year], I got a little bit more even-keeled, and I don't worry about the ups and downs. I just go out there and do my best every time and see what happens. [Last year], there was a lot of stuff I had to deal with, as far as having all the attention and all the speculation and everything. That is always going to happen. Bottom line is, all I can do is go out there and give everything I have. I can't really worry about what's going to happen. It's about making the adjustment."
Strasburg is expected to make adjustments when he faces the Marlins at Nationals Park on Opening Day -- Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET. It marks the second time in as many years that Strasburg will pitch on Opening Day for Washington. Last season, he pitched seven innings and allowed one run against the Cubs, but he didn't earn a decision in the Nationals' 2-1 victory.
"It's a tremendous honor, and I'm definitely excited," Strasburg said. "Last year, obviously, it was an experience in its own right -- at Wrigley Field. This time, it will be fun to pitch the home opener, too. The atmosphere is going to be electric.
"The fans are really pumped; everybody is really excited for baseball season to begin again. Everybody is coming into the park a little bit early to see all the new faces. Hopefully, we can get started [with a victory]."
The Nationals' decision to give their Opening Day start to Strasburg shouldn't come as a surprise. He was one of the best starting pitchers in the Majors last year, going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts. The numbers don't tell the whole story, however. His teammates know that Strasburg works hard between starts. He has a drive to be the best in the game.
"I hear guys talk about Roy Halladay and about how hard he works, how he is driven to be the best -- I see that in Stras," teammate Ryan Mattheus said. "He is by far one of the hardest workers I've been around. I think guys feed off that. Guys see that. He leads by example in that aspect. That's what impresses me the most. It's work ethic and his drive to be the best."
Right-hander Dan Haren said he didn't realize how tall Strasburg was until he finally met him in Spring Training. Then Haren realized that the 6-foot-4 right-hander is serious when it comes to improving at his craft.
"My first impression when I saw him was, he was lot bigger than I thought," Haren said. "I didn't know he was so tall and put together. But he really works hard in the weight room. He is in the trainer's room, constantly taking care of his arm, shoulder, elbow, everything. That's what impressed me the most, besides the stuff on the mound that he has done this spring, which has been really impressive."
Strasburg received his drive and work ethic from his mother, Kathy, a retired dietician who worked at a children's hospital in San Diego. Stephen said it took four people to replace his mother after she left the hospital. Kathy doesn't go to many of Stephen's games, for she is currently taking care of her mother in the San Diego area.
"She was never really athletic, but once she puts her mind to something, she will get it done," Strasburg said of his mother. "She is very hard working, very selfless. I definitely think she has the work ethic that she gave to me. That's the biggest thing. … I know what makes me successful. I focus on getting better, bigger, faster and stronger. That in the long run is going to help me out."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.