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Sport How Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg developed into MVP of World Series

19:16  31 october  2019
19:16  31 october  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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HOUSTON — The trophy was heavy, almost listing in the arms of the Major League Baseball official tasked to pass it off to Stephen Strasburg, but the Most Valuable Player of this 2019 World Series was not ready for it.

a man holding a microphone: Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg shown with the MVP award after winning the World Series.© Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg shown with the MVP award after winning the World Series.

Strasburg earned that trophy in every sense of the word, dominating opponents all October, winning five games, including two in this Series, capped by an 8 1/3-inning command performance in Tuesday’s Game 6 against the Houston Astros.

And so after the Nationals claimed their first championship ever with a 6-2, Game 7 triumph on Wednesday, it was an easy choice to hand Strasburg the rebooted trophy, featuring a sprawling Willie Mays and best described as bulky.

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Handing it off was a different story.

Strasburg navigated his 6-5, 230-pound frame through the sea of giddy humanity on the Minute Maid Park grass, not stopping until he gathered a posse of family members — parents, children, wife Rachel — around the pitching mound to pose with the championship trophy.

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Strasburg is private by nature and team-oriented at his core, yet through this postseason run, seemed to reveal a little more about himself, as a pitcher and person, and how far he’d come since the Nationals famously drafted him No. 1 out of San Diego State in 2009.

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Certainly, Max Scherzer’s mound-stomping, broken-nose junkyard dog persona puts his role in the Nationals’ winning culture at the forefront. But after Scherzer suffered a back injury this year, Strasburg gradually supplanted Mad Max as the Nationals’ most potent starter, if not their choice to break No. 1 out of the gate in the playoffs.

There was much more beneath the surface, too.

“There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about Stephen Strasburg because it’s not publicized,” says Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart, who has coached Strasburg since the right-hander debuted in the Arizona Fall League a decade ago. “This man has personality off the charts. He also is a team player. I call him my assistant coach.

“He’ll go out and watch bullpen sessions, not just with starters but relievers. He’ll pick their brains and see how they can improve. We work so well together in getting the rest of the group better.”

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Beyond the numbers — and the fortune — Strasburg is in the midst of a $175 million contract, and can opt out of it in coming days to cash in even further — is a competitor with a genuine love for the game. Strasburg had the good fortune to play for his idol, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, when he attended San Diego State.

In a sense, Gwynn — who passed away from mouth cancer in 2014 – was Strasburg’s first clubhouse mentor.

“Obviously his numbers were amazing. But growing up in San Diego and playing for him, being around him, I quickly realized that the impact that he had on the game was so much more than just the numbers he put up. And he took great care of me. He kind of showed me the ropes.

“At the end of the day, it's a team game. I think as a kid you're drawn to this game because of being around a bunch of other kids and you want to go out there and play together and hopefully win. But it's the camaraderie, it's the brotherhood that is the most satisfying.”

But Strasburg never seemed like another brother — everything about him was different, from his record $15.5 million signing bonus, his 97-mph fastball and even the Nationals’ perpetually-debated decision to shut him down before the 2012 playoffs to better manage his recovery from 2010 Tommy John surgery.

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When the Nationals signed Scherzer to a $210 million deal before the 2015 season, Strasburg had a running mate atop the rotation — and an obvious contrast.

“There’s a lot of differences between him and Max,” says reliever Sean Doolittle, who joined the club in a July 2017 trade. “People may have overlooked Stras and how good he is, because Max’s personality is a lot louder and Stras’ personality is more quiet and measured. So they’re very different personas and I always thought Stras didn’t get the credit he deserves.”

Even when he puts the work in — on his behalf and others.

“I came over here in ’17,” says Doolittle, “and got to know him and got to see that when he finishes his throwing program, he goes into the bullpen just to watch guys throw (side sessions) and pick their brains. He wants to have a constant dialogue because he’s constantly trying to pick something up.

“He’s asking me for advice on mechanics stuff and I’m like, ‘You’re Stephen Strasburg, man. I’ve got nothing for you. I can’t help you.’”

This season, that cross seemed lighter to bear. Strasburg stayed healthy, making more than 30 starts for just the second time in 10 seasons, and struck out a career-high 251.

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When Menhart saw Strasburg in that Arizona Fall League stint a decade ago, he confirmed the pre-draft reports that a blind man could almost see — blazing fastball, devastating curve. But he also had a giddier evaluation for GM Mike Rizzo.

“I said, we’ve got a changeup unlike any other besides Pedro Martinez,” Menhart said after Game 7.

That pitch mix was unbeatable throughout the playoffs. Strasburg bailed out Scherzer with three shutout innings in the NL wild-card game and helped slay the 106-win Dodgers in Game 2 and Game 5 starts in the NL Division Series.

His fastball doesn’t sizzle as it once did, but his ability to throw his curve and changeup in the zone for swinging strikes or out of the zone to make opponents look foolish more than makes up for a tick less velocity.

And his playoff strikeout-walk ratio – 71-8 – reflected his preparation, both mental and physical.

Little wonder, then, that the MVP trophy eventually found its way into his hands. Strasburg’s command and control are always impeccable.

“Through all the adversity, I think I've learned a lot about myself,” he says. “When you have the ups and downs, I think you can learn just as much from the downs as you can the ups.”

And at this point, Strasburg can’t get much higher.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg developed into MVP of World Series

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a group of people posing for the camera: Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez and his team hoist the Commissioners Trophy after defeating the Houston Astros in game seven of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park. The Washington Nationals won the World Series winning four games to three on October 30, 2019.


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