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MLB

Finally, Nationals turn Strasburg loose against NL

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 6:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg is ready for his first big league season without restrictions.

Ready to go from season's start to finish.

Ready to throw as many pitches as it takes and to stay on the mound as long as possible, including into the eighth and ninth inning, something he's never done in the majors.

It all begins Monday, when All-Star ace Strasburg starts the season opener for the defending NL East champion Washington Nationals against a Miami Marlins club that traded away most of its best players, cut its payroll by more than half, starts with seven players on the disabled list and has a rookie manager in Mike Redmond.

“It's going to be a good test for me, obviously,” Strasburg, 24, said about the chance to see what his prized — and surgically repaired — right arm can do without any limits imposed by the Nationals.

“I haven't gone over seven innings yet in my career. I know in the past when I've been allowed to do that, I feel like my game's gotten better later on in the game. The hitters change their approach later in the game. It's going to be interesting to see how the game changes in the later innings when you're out there, because I still haven't experienced that yet.”

Not since college, anyway.

In 13 starts at San Diego State that lasted more than seven innings, Strasburg was 13-0 with a 0.74 ERA, according to STATS LLC.

He's been allowed to go as long as seven innings — and never more than that — a total of seven times with the Nationals and owns a 4-0 record and 1.29 ERA in those games. The righty never pitched more than seven innings in the minors.

“Last year, I was a little quicker with the hook, because I was trying to add some games at the end. I don't feel under the gun to do that,” said Davey Johnson, the NL Manager of the Year who said he'll retire after 2013. “I'll go with what I think I can get out of him and not overburden him.”

Overall, Strasburg is 21-10 with a 2.94 ERA in 45 career starts in the majors since his electrifying debut. He went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts over 159 13 innings last season before being shut down because the Nationals decided he'd thrown enough for a guy who had reconstructive elbow surgery in September 2010.

“They're just going to let him be now. He's going to go out there and compete, have some fun, go out to the max, do it the way he's supposed to do it,” said teammate Gio Gonzalez, who finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2012. “Last year, on an innings and pitch limit, stuff like that, he still managed to get us 15 wins. So if you give that guy another month or so, or even more in the postseason, he's going to definitely get us where we need to be and hopefully keep us at the top of the division.”

While the Nationals won a majors-high 98 games last season and are touted by many — including their own manager — as a World Series favorite, the Marlins are widely expected to repeat last year's last-place finish in the NL East.

Redmond, a 41-year-old former backup catcher, replaces the fired Ozzie Guillen in the dugout and needs to figure out how to coax wins out of a roster featuring 23-year-old slugger Giancarlo Stanton and little else in the way of proven players.

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