Nationals' Opening Day starter will be . . . ?


LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was a day when Stephen Strasburg spun four shutout innings and talked about how much it has meant to him to start for the Nationals on the past three Opening Days.

Sorry, Stephen. Once again, it was not a day when his manager, Matt Williams, was taking the bait when asked if he was ready to name his Opening Day starter.

“Somebody’s got to start Opening Day,” Williams said Tuesday, when the matter came up for the first time in the past 30 seconds. “We’ll make that decision.”

There are lots of folks who believe that he already has made it. And when the name finally comes out of his mouth, it’s going to be that of a fellow who’s about to start collecting $210 million from this team during the next decade and a half.

But no matter how many times he is asked, Williams isn’t ready to answer. Not yet anyway. And the funny thing about that is, it would be pretty much impossible for him to get that answer wrong.

He could name Max Scherzer, who has net capital wealth and Cy Young Award trophies going for him.

Or Jordan Zimmermann would be a fine choice, considering he was merely this team’s best pitcher last year.

Or there’s Strasburg, who has started three of these openers in a row and would be happy to mention that his team has won all three of them.

Or, to be honest, not only would the Nos. 4-6 starters on this team -- Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark -- not be horrible choices, but they’d probably be better than the Opening Day starters for a half-dozen other major league teams.

But nope. The manager wasn’t saying, wasn’t tipping his hand, wasn’t even giving hints. For that matter, he wasn’t even deviating from his oft-told spin on why it’s taking so long.

“It’s not a difficult decision,” Williams said. “I just know from last year that we had a plan. And Doug pulled a lat muscle last year, and we had to change those plans. And then we had a pitcher [Gonzalez] scheduled to go the third game, and he got the flu. So you just never know.

“So we’ll evaluate as we get longer down the line here,” he said. “And we’ll let everybody know when it’s the appropriate time. To jump out there and say something now is probably not appropriate to any of them. And you don’t know how everybody is going to get through the rest of the spring. So a decision will be made. And we’ll announce it when it’s the appropriate time to do so.”

Well, there are only 20 days left until Opening Day, so the appropriate time is clearly drawing closer. But the choices will remain the same. And those choices are so good that we asked if he could actually pretty much do this by throwing darts.

“No,” he said, with only a very slight laugh. “No. It’s not that simple. No, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. The thing that’s comforting for us is that all our guys really compete. And they want to have that ball whenever it’s given to them. So that’s a great thing.”

The guy who took the ball on this day was Strasburg. And after he’d finished punching out five Tigers (all on off-speed stuff) in four innings, he was asked about what it had meant to him to start the past three openers.

“It’s something,” he said, “that I think you tell your kids about some day.”

On the other hand, you don’t tell your kids that the manager is working on a streak of 24 spring training days in a row of not revealing this season's choice. But based on how Williams danced around those probing questions Tuesday, we like his chances of making it 25 days in a row.

“It’s not like we’re avoiding any questions or answers at this point,” said Williams. “We just have to evaluate our guys. We’ll try to make the best decision that we can.”

So there you go. You might think it’s easy managing a team with aces lined up from here to Silver Spring. But as Williams made perfectly clear Tuesday, it just might be more challenging than it looks.