WASHINGTON (AP) About a half-hour before game time on the days Stephen Strasburg starts at home for the Washington Nationals, he emerges from the dugout and walks along the right-field line with pitching coach Steve McCatty, hearing cheers from spectators along the way.
Strasburg might tote a plastic water bottle in his back pocket; McCatty usually drapes a white towel over a shoulder. When they arrive at the outfield's far corner, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander stretches. He'll limber up by tossing a baseball there before moving into the bullpen to warm up in earnest while McCatty watches with arms crossed.
Eventually, Strasburg heads to the mound at the center of the diamond for his final preparatory throws. The Nationals Park announcer introduces the fielders, finishing with Strasburg's name, as the heavy-driving bass of the White Stripes' ''Seven Nation Army'' fills the stadium.
That familiar sequence will take place in October for the first time when Strasburg makes his postseason debut, probably Friday in Washington's NL Division Series opener against Pittsburgh or San Francisco. Shut down by the Nationals in September 2012 to protect his surgically repaired right elbow, Strasburg was not allowed to pitch in those playoffs - a decision debated around baseball.
The Nationals themselves, not surprisingly, are mostly mum on the subject these days.
''It's worked as planned,'' said general manager Mike Rizzo, the man mainly responsible for holding out Strasburg two years ago, when Washington was eliminated in Game 5 of the NLDS by St. Louis.
Owner Mark Lerner calls sitting Strasburg in 2012 ''one of the easiest decisions that we've ever had to make. It took 30 seconds.''
''I don't regret it. It was the right thing for the young man in the long term,'' Lerner said. ''You've got the naysayers out there. That's fine. But we're very comfortable in the decision that was made, and I think we'd do it all over again.''
Said McCatty: ''It's a moot point. We did what we had to do, what the club had to do. Stephen's come back, responded well, and he's ready to go.''
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA this season, with career highs of 34 starts, 215 innings and 242 strikeouts. He was particularly strong down the stretch for the 96-win NL East champions, going 4-1 with a 1.13 ERA, 40 strikeouts and three walks over his final six starts, dating from Aug. 30.
''I don't see it as, `Strasburg got held out in 2012,''' shortstop Ian Desmond said. ''I see it as, `Strasburg's having a great year, has pitched unbelievable for us, and I wouldn't want to face him.'''
Asked about the much-hyped Strasburg's much-discussed shutdown, rookie manager Matt Williams said: ''Without passing any judgment one way or the other, it's probably a really important reason why he's here right now.''
The 26-year-old Strasburg is part of a rotation that's been nearly perfect lately. Take the last three starts for each member of the expected NLDS staff - Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez - and they're a combined 11-1 with a 1.07 ERA, 75 strikeouts and 11 walks. Zimmermann closed the regular season Sunday with Washington's first no-hitter.
''There's no give,'' McCatty said.
One stat Rizzo pointed to about Strasburg: increased velocity. He averaged 95.4 mph on fastballs in September, up from 94.1 in April, according to FanGraphs.com.
''He's our horse,'' Rizzo said. ''He's more mature personally, too; he's married and has a new baby. All of that has played into it and made him a more relaxed, more prepared pitcher.''
Strasburg himself does not seem all that interested in offering analysis.
After his final regular-season outing - six innings, zero runs - Strasburg appeared dour as he spoke with the media in flat tones before a team spokesman cut off the session.
Was there a moment where you gained confidence? ''Um, it's tough to say. I think, just as the season went on, I got more comfortable out there executing pitches.''
Is this as well as you've felt physically? ''I don't know. I mean, have a couple good games and everybody starts talking about that, and you have one bad one, and they're all questioning what's going on.''
How would you describe this stretch? ''I don't know. I'm not going to worry about that stuff. All I can do is compete and let the chips fall.''
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