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Stephen Strasburg: A King of the Hill Becomes a Lord of the Dance

HOUSTON — When the Washington Nationals won the National League pennant last week to the advance to their first World Series, the clubhouse was full of customary beer, Champagne and revelry. And in the middle of the room, Stephen Strasburg, one of the team’s aces, and Gerardo Parra, a backup outfielder whose midseason addition helped spark the team’s drastic turnaround, danced.

Parra, 32, who is from Venezuela, and Strasburg, 31, a San Diego native, held each other and swayed to the merengue hit “Te Soñé” by Ala Jaza, a Dominican artist. Moments before, Strasburg had danced in the middle of a circle of teammates from Latin America.

“Oh, man, I didn’t know how those got out there,” Strasburg said of the videos of his dancing.

Strasburg, who will make his first World Series start in Game 2 on Wednesday against the Houston Astros, is known for his powerful right arm and his reserved personality. The impossibly high expectations that followed him from a young age — the Nationals drafted him No. 1 in 2009, and his major league debut a year later at 21 was perhaps the most anticipated of any pitching prospect’s — were a lot to handle.

But as Strasburg overcame injuries, moved past a controversial decision to shut him down in 2012 and matured as a pitcher, people around him watched as he came out of his shell more and more. He grew to consider Washington home, and signed a lucrative contract extension to stay. He embraced hugs in the dugout and dances in the clubhouse.

“He’s let his hair down a little, if you will,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has watched Strasburg since he was a teenager at San Diego State University. “He’s just way more comfortable and more mature, and is like a lot of our guys who are really embracing this season.”

This Nationals began their season with playoff aspirations, but after a 19-31 start, they seemed unlikely to reach October, let alone overcome their tradition of first-round struggles. Washington’s turnaround was ignited by improved play, bullpen help and a carefree attitude in the clubhouse that grew with additions like reliever Fernando Rodney and Parra.

Strasburg enjoyed it all, posting a 3.32 earned run average and a career-best 251 strikeouts in 209 regular-season innings while building an 18-6 record. On Wednesday he will have a chance to give the Nationals a two-games-to-none lead in the World Series.

“He loves this team and is comfortable,” said Erik Castro, who played with Strasburg in college and remains a close friend. “He’s been with them for a long time, he enjoys being there and he’s enjoyed this team especially.”

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been Strasburg’s teammate longer than anyone else on the Nationals, said the players had come to look at Strasburg as a veteran leader.

“He doesn’t say much; when he does, you take it pretty heavy,” Zimmerman said.

A sense of stability increased during the 2016 season, which was set to be Strasburg’s final one before free agency. That May he signed a seven-year $175-million extension, the largest contract for a pitcher who had undergone Tommy John elbow surgery.

Agreeing to an extension made Strasburg a rarity among the clients of the agent Scott Boras, who prefers to test the open market for maximum leverage. But Strasburg wanted to remain in Washington, and that might be a factor this off-season when he weighs his right to exercise the first of two opt-outs in his contract. Since he signed the extension, Strasburg, his wife and two daughters have made Washington their off-season home.

“Since he’s got here, Steve has had so much pressure and hype — almost unfairly — for what he was supposed to do in his career,” Zimmerman said. “And at the beginning of his career — I don’t want to say he let it get to him, because only he can tell you that — it had to be hard to deal with. I can’t imagine having that sort of pressure on you from Day 1.”

Seeing Strasburg laugh, dance and hug now, it is almost hard to remember those days. But he brushed off the notion that he was letting loose more than before.

“I feel pretty much the same to be honest,” said Strasburg, who has a career 1.10 E.R.A. in 41 postseason innings. “From the outside looking in, you can look at one thing. But you kind of just roll with what you’ve got, and we have a lot of guys that like to have a lot of fun. I’m not one to be the Debbie Downer here.”

Zimmerman said he had seen Strasburg dance before; it just wasn’t on social media for the public to see. Parra commended Strasburg’s efforts.

“Those moves are all natural to him,” he said. “All you try to do is explain a few moves to him.”

Strasburg called his dancing a work in progress and spur-of-the-moment fun. “They’ve asked me to dance so many times,” he said, “I’m bound to get a little bit better.”

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