Washington Nationals: Pressure will be off Stephen Strasburg in 2019

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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals reacts before being removed from the game in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on May 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals reacts before being removed from the game in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on May 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /
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Stephen Strasburg’s career has been under a microscope since he was drafted by the Washington Nationals. But the pressure appears to be lower in 2019.

It feels like just yesterday that Washington Nationals fans craved the debut of Stephen Strasburg, the then top prospect. The organization needed any spark it could get at that time, so there was pressure on him right from the beginning to live up to those expectations.

On that occasion, he delivered in the most spectacular way. The right-hander mowed down the Pittsburgh Pirates like they weren’t even in the batter’s box, striking out 14 hitters and claiming the win in his debut.

The weight of the franchise was on his shoulders and he was the ace of the staff for the first five years of his career when healthy. And when he wasn’t healthy, he felt the pressure to get back healthy, sometimes coming back too soon and aggravating injuries.

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Yes, they had Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Doug Fister, but they weren’t the pitchers who were able to put butts in seats or leave you speechless from the mound in the same way. It was still Strasburg’s staff back then.

Then came Max Scherzer in 2015, he was supposed to be the guy that took the pressure off and could let Stephen Strasburg just pitch. But the rest of the staff struggled through inconsistencies and the pressure was immediately back on him to back up the prized free agent signing. You looked at the rotation and there were questions marks looking at the pitchers coming up after the big two.

The headlines wouldn’t go away every offseason. Strasburg will finally break through this year. Huge year ahead for Strasburg. The key to the Nationals’ season is Strasburg.

But this offseason? Barely a peep, so far at least. The big money signing of Patrick Corbin has taken the gaze away from Strasburg in the rotation and onto the new left-hander who has been brought in to help make the rotation fearsome again. If Strasburg has a bad outing, he should have Corbin there ready to give the Nats an excellent chance to win the next day, which has been a rarity in his career.

There’s also a case to be made that with the Nats looking less and less likely to re-sign Bryce Harper, there’s a more team-centric approach. Less focus on individuals and more focus on collectively outperforming the sum of their parts. That could give the long-time Nat his chance to start the season under the radar.

He’ll still likely be slotted in as the number two starter in the rotation and when people talk about the Nats rotation, he’s still rightly put there, but there’s no talk about a much-needed bounce back season. He should be able to go about his business and right the wrongs of last season.

Statistically, 2018 was his worst season in the major leagues. He posted a 10-7 record with a 3.74 ERA and a FIP of 3.62. He did finish strong with a 2.66 ERA and 11.1 K/9 in his last seven starts, but that was with some diminished velocity that has several fans concerned.

Perhaps that would explain some of the silence around expectations for him this offseason. The velocity and poor season overall raise red flags, but the end of the year was a rare occasion he wasn’t under any pressure and he delivered.

After a nine-strikeout start against the Phillies, he told Jamal Collier of MLB.com “Instead of trying to reach back for it and not make pitches, you just have to pitch where you’re comfortable at and not really look at the [radar] gun too much.” The velocity should come back and he’ll be better off because of it, as he did it in pressure-free circumstances and thrived.

Other than a DL stint, nobody is expecting as much as they used to with Strasburg heading into next season. But maybe, just maybe, with the baseball world’s eyes elsewhere on this Nationals team, he can pitch like he has done virtually every September and not push himself too far trying to live up to the sky-high expectations. That’s when he could be at his very best.

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Stephen Strasburg was billed as one of the saviors for the Washington Nationals as soon as he’s drafted. But now, the pressure might have finally subsided a little bit and could set him up to finally pitch like we all know he can.

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