WASHINGTON — When the Washington Nationals began the 2011 regular season, Stephen Strasburg was miles and miles away — from his teammates and the major leagues.
He was on his own in Florida, taking the baby steps required to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right elbow, still limited to throwing on flat ground and more than a month away from being allowed to climb a mound.
On Thursday, when Washington starts 2012 against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Strasburg will get his first opening-day assignment. And he made clear he plans to throw all-out, every time, all season, and not worry one bit about the limit of about 160 innings he'll have because of his operation.
"It's out of my control. It's their decision, and I think that's the way I want it to be, because I want to go out there and pitch and give it everything I have," Strasburg said before the Nationals lost to the Boston Red Sox 8-7 in their exhibition finale Tuesday. "I mean, I know it's going to be a little different, but at the same time, I want to be like one of the other guys. You go out there, you pitch until your stuff's not working anymore, and then they take the ball out of your hands."
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft called his upcoming Game 1 assignment a "huge honor."
"To really think where I was a year ago at this time — I really couldn't ask for much more," Strasburg said, a smile creasing his face. "I worked extremely hard to get back here. And the job isn't done. I've still got a lot to learn, and it's going to be that way for a while."
Perhaps. He did seem to know what he was doing from the get-go, though.
He made an electrifying debut for the Nationals in June 2010, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in seven innings and earning the victory. He went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 12 starts in that first taste of the majors before having the elbow problems that resulted in Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3 of that year.
In five starts after returning to Washington last September, Strasburg went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA.
"It gave me, like, a baseline. Finishing out the year strong, coming back, I think that's realistically something I can work off of and not really go into (this) season not knowing what to expect or not knowing how the arm's going to be feeling," he said. "It's going to be a lot more of a comfortable transition than it would have been if I didn't pitch at all last year."
There was some speculation this spring that someone other than Strasburg might get Thursday's start for Washington, as a way of delaying the start of his inning count.
But when Nationals manager Davey Johnson was asked Tuesday whether there ever was any doubt in his mind that Strasburg would throw the team's first official pitch of 2012, the skipper replied, "No," then paused for a beat before adding: "And I don't think in his mind, either."
After all, as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it: "He's our guy."
Washington general manager Mike Rizzo added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to his rotation this offseason, and Jordan Zimmermann is another power arm the team likes.
But Rizzo knows Strasburg is different.
"I like him out there because he gives us the best chance to win. He's going to start a lot of these opening days for us," Rizzo said. "He's going to be a dominant starting pitcher. He's learned how to pitch a little bit since (his major league debut). But you're going to see the same stuff, with maybe a little bit more expertise and moxie."
As much as Strasburg looks forward to checking out Wrigley on his first trip there, and to getting the season started, he echoed the looking-down-the-road optimism that's been coming out of the mouths of Johnson, Rizzo and various players all spring.
"Opening day — it is an honor and stuff," Strasburg said. "But it's not what I play for. You want to play for the games in October."
NOTES: C Wilson Ramos and SS Ian Desmond homered off Boston starter Clay Buchholz on Tuesday, and Ramos added an RBI single off Justin Thomas in a three-run seventh. But RHP Henry Rodriguez gave up the go-ahead run on Jason Repko's double in the ninth; Rodriguez hadn't allowed a run in 11 previous innings this spring. ... Nationals closer Drew Storen, who will start the season on the disabled list, threw 25 pitches in a bullpen session Tuesday and said a mid-April return "sounds about right." He said he threw at "pretty close to maximum effort" and didn't feel any pain in his right elbow. "That's kind of the big thing for me," said Storen, who earned 43 saves last season. ... With CF Rick Ankiel headed to the DL, Roger Bernadina started in center Tuesday, and Johnson said he "probably" would take that spot against the Cubs on Thursday, too.
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich