Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws against the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the NLDS on October 11 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ill. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/UPI | License Photo
Max Scherzer won the last two National League Cy Young Awards and is exactly the kind of dominating pitcher opposing hitters absolutely hate to face. That does not necessarily mean he is the most intimidating starter on the Washington Nationals' staff.
That could very well be Stephen Strasburg, who is coming off a commanding 2017 postseason and an impressive spring training as makes his 2018 debut Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
He can't wait to see what will happen. Neither can the Nationals, who no doubt read the multiple predictions from major media outlets predicting that this could be the season Strasburg wins the Cy Young himself.
"We've got to do a better job with Strasburg (than they did with Scherzer)," Reds manager Bryan Price said after Scherzer, striking out 10 over six innings, and three relievers combined to shut out Cincinnati 2-0 in a season opener Friday.
Strasburg took numerous steps in recent seasons to make sure he stayed healthy -- shortening his windup, cutting down throwing between starts and adopting a more challenging offseason training routine. They paid off last season with a second successive 15-4 record, a 2.52 ERA and 28 starts last year, the most he's made in a season since starting 34 times in 2014.
"My arm felt really good all spring," the right-hander said after striking out 10 in his final spring outing, against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday. "I think it's just about reps and just continuing the process. Everything seems to tighten up every time I go out there, and that's all I can ask for."
Strasburg, beset by injuries early in his career, ended last season by not allowing an earned run in two National League Division Series starts against the Chicago Cubs, even though the Nationals lost the series in five games. That's the kind of dominance Strasburg displays repeatedly when he's healthy.
"He's impressive," new Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "He's ready to go."
The Scherzer-Strasburg combination is one reason why the Nationals are heavily favored to win a third consecutive National League East title. The Reds, of course, are undertaking their latest rebuilding project following a third consecutive last-place season in the NL Central, and that's evident from their rotation.
So, while the Nationals will roll out a second successive Cy Young-level starter during their opening weekend series in Cincinnati, the Reds will start right-hander Luis Castillo -- one of four unproven starters in their rotation.
The 25-year-old Castillo is 3-7 with a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts with the Reds last season but possesses a fastball that can touch 100 mph -- he averaged 97.5 mph in 2017 -- and a more-than-adequate changeup and breaking ball.
Castillo added a fourth pitch last season, a two-seam fastball that acts like a sinker, and he was confident enough in it that he broke it in during the season, rather than trying to perfect it during the offseason or spring training.
The Reds believe he can develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter, one reason they acquired him from the Miami Marlins in the Dan Straily trade.
"He has a special collection of talents that allow him to compete against the best in the league and he did a lot more (in 2017) than simply hold his own," Price told the team's website. "I thought he was better than the league for a good portion of the time he was on the mound for us."
Not many Reds starters could say that last season as the team lost 94 games for the second season in a row.
Nationals' hitters don't have much of a book on Castillo, who is 0-1 in two starts against them; Bryce Harper is 1-for-5 and Ryan Zimmerman is 1-for-6 against him, but Anthony Rendon does -- he was 2-for-2 with a pair of homers and three RBIs against him last season.
Strasburg is 3-1 with a 4.40 ERA in eight career starts against the Reds, but several of their batters have hit him well. Joey Votto is 5-for-16 with a pair of home runs and Scooter Gennett is 4-for-11 with three homers. Billy Hamilton is 2-for-10 (.200).
The Reds wasted four hits from Gennett and a strong start from Homer Bailey -- six innings, one run allowed -- against Scherzer, who was as good as expected Friday.
"At the end of the day, you can look at (it) that you threw well, but it's still an 'L,' " Bailey said following his first career Opening Day start.