VIERA, Fla. — Matt Williams gave it consideration, waited as long as he could before making an announcement. In the end, though, the answer was obvious: Stephen Strasburg will start Opening Day for the Nationals again.
Williams finally made that official Wednesday night, naming Strasburg his No. 1 starter for the Nationals' season opener March 31 at the Mets.
"He's earned it," the rookie manager said.
This will be Strasburg's third consecutive Opening Day start, but Williams insists he did give serious consideration to Jordan Zimmermann on the heels of an NL-leading 19-win season.
Strasburg, though, brings experience, dominant stuff and a desire to elevate his performance to new heights after an up-and-down 2013 that saw him post a 3.00 ERA over a career-high 30 starts but finish with a disappointing 8-9 record due to a lack of run support and several early exits from games due to injury or other unforeseen circumstances.
"He wants to be even better than he is," Williams said. "Coming into spring, certainly one of his objectives was to hold baserunners better. He' working on those things here because he wants to be as good as he can possibly be."
Strasburg has enjoyed plenty of success in his two previous Opening Day starts. He allowed one run over seven innings against the Cubs in 2012 in a game his teammates won with a late rally. Last year he shut out the Marlins over seven dominant innings, earning the win.
Williams not only is keeping his Opening Day starter intact from previous seasons, but the first-time manager also plans to keep his top three starters in order. Gio Gonzalez will again start the season's second game (April 2 at the Mets), with Zimmermann starting the next afternoon at Citi Field.
It's perhaps rare for the league's reigning wins leader and an All-Star to serve as his club's No. 3 starter, but the Nationals are confident that designation doesn't faze Zimmermann.
"We spoke to Jordan. He's good with whatever and wherever he pitches," Williams said. "Opening Day is important, but the rest of the days are important, too."
The Mets haven't announced their rotation plans yet, but with Matt Harvey recovering from Tommy John surgery and Jon Niese dealing with a shoulder injury, manager Terry Collins is expected to use veteran right-hander Bartolo Colon on Opening Day, with Zach Wheeler and Dillon Gee also pitching in the opening series.
Williams isn't ready to name the rest of his season-opening rotation yet, needing first to see how Doug Fister looks in his return to the mound Saturday and beyond. If Fister is able to build up his arm enough, he would start the season's fourth game (the Nationals' April 4 home opener against the Braves).
If Fister needs a little extra time, though, the Nationals could use their No. 5 starter (either Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan or Chris Young) in the season's fourth game, then bring back Strasburg April 5 on normal rest before sending Fister to the mound for their April 6 series finale against Atlanta.
The eventual rotation order won't matter much, but Williams recognizes the significance of Opening Day and wanted to make sure Strasburg had the ball in his hand to through the Nationals' first pitch of the season.
"Opening Day is special, and it's an honor for anyone who is chosen to go Opening Day," the manager said. "Is it more important than any other start he's going to make during the year? No. But it's Opening Day. And so he's ready for it. He's excited for it. And so are we."