VIERA, Fla. — Stephen Strasburg already knew this year was going to be different. New manager. New expectations. Free agent at year’s end.

But a clue as to how strange things could get arrived the other day during a conversation with the new skipper, Dusty Baker.

Now, understand, Baker knows everybody. And it’s one thing that endears him to his players. Common friends and acquaintances. But even for Dusty, this was wild.

As Strasburg honeymooned on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in January 2010, his agent, Scott Boras, arranged with a local high school for someone to catch the right-hander because, wedding or no wedding, he needed to throw off a mound.

Anyway, the kid’s family owned a brick-oven pizza place. And during his non-throwing hours, Strasburg and his wife visited there and also went to the family’s home for a Hawaiian barbecue.

Somehow, Baker knows the family.

“I don’t know how Dusty knows ’em, but he knows ’em,” Strasburg said during an early-morning conversation in the Washington Nationals‘ spring clubhouse the other day, shaking his head and smiling.

Yes, it is a new season with new relationships. Maybe those will help launch Strasburg toward the heights that neither he nor the Nationals seem to be able to reach.

Next door to his locker is Max Scherzer, ace pitcher and valuable resource. Two years ago in Detroit, it was Scherzer who walked into camp with his future uncertain beyond the coming season. And Scherzer rose to the challenge, going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA there and scoring a $210 million deal here.

He has not yet offered Strasburg any advice on the impending pressure and inevitable distractions. There is no GPS to navigate through the maze. But surely, in a quiet moment or two when circumstances threaten to knock Strasburg off course this season, Scherzer will be there to help balance him.

“You’ve got to realize, we’ve always had to play for money,” Scherzer said. “You go through the draft, there’s a pot of gold at the end of it. Then you go through arbitration, and there’s a pot of gold after every season.

“This year, there’s another pot of gold. Nothing changes.

“Only the size of the pot of gold changes.”

Strasburg admits that impending free agency crosses his mind every so often, especially during the winter when contracts and business talk dominate the sport’s landscape.

Once he walked into camp, he said, it became easy to focus because this is the atmosphere he knows. Pitching. Preparation. The insular protection the clubhouse offers from the outside world.

The rest, he concedes, will be different.

“The other stuff, I’ve never dealt with before,” he said. “It is completely unknown to me. I’ll focus on what I know, and that’s this team.”

What he also knows is pitching under pressure, which makes what is on deck for him next winter not unlike, in so many ways, all the mounds he has previously climbed.

At San Diego State, there was the hype that accompanies the projected No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

In the minors, there was the anticipation that he should steam straight on through like a freight train.

The circus accompanied his comeback from 2010 Tommy John surgery. There was the innings limit during his first full season in the majors in 2012, when the Nationals pulled the plug on his season at 159.1 innings pitched in early September.

Never has he been surrounded by silence.

“This year isn’t any different than any other,” he said. “There always have been expectations. There’s always been a microscope.”

But there is no denying the slight difference between this and other summers for Strasburg, who was one of baseball’s hottest pitchers down the stretch in 2015 by going 6-2 with a glittering 1.90 ERA over his final 10 starts.

“Look, you have a chance to make as much money in this next year as you will for your whole life,” Scherzer said. “That can be a lot of pressure. You have to be so focused solely on winning.

“If you worry about anything else, you won’t win.” 

Strasburg, who avoided arbitration this year by signing a one-year, $10.4 million deal with the Nationals, said there have been no discussions yet about an extension. In terms of if or when there might be, stay tuned.

“I’m always listening,” he said. “We’ll see. You’re always open to listening.

“We like D.C. My family is comfortable in D.C. Right now, there’s nothing to report on.”

Boras said last month that he expects to discuss Strasburg‘s future with the Nationals at season’s end. Traditionally, the agent takes his clients into free agency, there rarely is a hometown discount (the Los Angeles Angels‘ Jered Weaver, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the club in August 2011, is one notable exception) and they wind up leaving for a more lucrative deal elsewhere.

Though Strasburg has not said he won’t negotiate during the season, in the past, many others in his situation have said they won’t talk contracts after Opening Day. He can see why.

“I’ve seen guys do that before, and it makes sense,” Strasburg said. “You don’t really want to have conversations that can be a distraction not only to yourself, but to the guys with you in the clubhouse.

“The thing I’ve come to learn is anything can happen. Anything can happen a week from now, or eight or nine months from now.”

To this point, he said he doesn’t have a list of potential cities in which he’s interested.

“This is the only team I know,” he said. “This is the comfort zone for me.

“I’ve been more focused on what we have laid out in front of us as a ballclub. We have a new manager, a new coaching staff, a new training staff. I’ve really enjoyed all of it.”

Highly respected pitching coach Mike Maddux was lured from the Texas Rangers to join Baker as the Nationals pick up the pieces of a disastrous 2015 season. Packaged with the new start, though, are the old expectations, albeit more tattered now having gone through several spin cycles over the past couple of seasons.

This is a team that needs to take advantage of Bryce Harper’s brilliance, Strasburg‘s presence, Scherzer‘s dominance and Jayson Werth’s wiliness before all of this youth and talent turns to dust. And the clock is ticking louder.

“I just need to try and get better and do what I can to help this team win games,” said Strasburg, 27, who has logged 200 or more innings just once. “It was a big learning year for me last year.

“I want to pick up where I left off. I feel like I made some steps. I’m not going to sit here and say that because I pitched well, everything is good.

“I feel like I made steps in preparation and consistency.”

Now comes the tricky part in his walk year: seeing where those steps take him and his team.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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