VIERA, Fla. -- It's been nearly 18 months since Stephen Strasburg reached back to throw that 90 mph changeup in Philadelphia and immediately felt something wrong in his elbow. There was barely a day after that in which the young right-hander didn't think about the state of his arm, didn't wonder in the back of his mind whether everything was OK, even after he had made his successful return to the Nationals in September.
And then Strasburg went home to San Diego for the winter, took some time off to relax and recuperate, and then began throwing a baseball again as part of a routine offseason program.
For the first time since that devastating night in Philadelphia, Strasburg realized he was no longer thinking about his arm.
"When I go out there and throw, it feels so much more natural now than it did coming off the surgery," he said today upon reporting for spring training. "My mind's a lot clearer. I just go out there and throw the baseball. I don't think as much about mechanics or anything. I don't feel myself holding back a little bit. I just let it go."
And then there's this nugget from the 23-year-old hurler and would-be ace of a revamped and potent Nationals rotation: "It feels like it almost never happened."
Strasburg was all smiles on his first day in camp, and for good reason. He's healthy. He's among friends. He got to experience the honor of having his No. 37 jersey retired at San Diego State Friday night.
And, for the first time in a long time, Strasburg doesn't feel like he's the unwarranted center of attention. That's because he's no longer the fresh-out-of-college phenom taking the baseball world by storm, and because he's no longer the guy trying to battle back from Tommy John surgery.
But it's also because he's no longer one of the only big names inside the Nationals clubhouse. Across the way from his locker are Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. And surrounding him on the pitchers' side are Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.
Yes, the Nationals are counting on big things from Strasburg. But he's not going to have to bear the weight of the entire organization. And that's a comforting thought for him.
"The one thing I really benefited from in college was, they treated me just like I was another donkey," he said with a laugh. "That's what they told me: You're just another donkey. That's how I want to be here. I don't want the special treatment. I want to go out there, and when they tell me to pitch, I'm going to give it everything I have. When they say I'm done, I'm going to be done."
Strasburg enjoyed a quiet offseason in San Diego, partaking in some weight lifting and yoga exercises (something he used to do while in college). The goal: "Being more flexible, being able to recover faster." He's been throwing for weeks and has experienced no setbacks.
No matter how healthy Strasburg feels, of course, the Nationals will still stick to their plan for all pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery. As was the case last season with Zimmermann, Strasburg will be on an innings limit this season (most likely around 160) and he won't be permitted to surpass the 100-pitch mark by much in any given start.
That may be a tough pill for Strasburg to swallow, but he only needs to look at Zimmermann for evidence of how to handle the situation.
"I think what I learned from Jordan and what I'm going to try to incorporate is ... I don't want to go out there and say, 'Oh, I know they're going to take me out in this inning because I've thrown this many innings this year,'" he said. "I'm going to go out until they take the ball out of my hands. Whether it's going complete game, pitching on three days' rest, that's something that I'm working hard to be able to do. I'm not saying they're going to do it this year. But that's something I'm working towards."
He also learned a thing or two from his own recovery from an injury that could have ended his career before it ever had a chance to take off.
"I need to remember what I learned from that experience, because it was a tough experience in my career," he said. "I just need to remember you can't take things for granted. You've got to keep working hard every single day."