Manager Davey Johnson made the decision public on Wednesday, not long after pitching coach Steve McCatty delivered the news to Strasburg. McCatty and Strasburg discussed Tuesday's game against the Mets, and then McCatty hit Strasburg with the news that he was going to be the Opening Day starter.
McCatty saw a No. 1 pitcher in Strasburg during the last day of the 2011 season, when Strasburg pitched six shutout innings and struck out 10 batters in a 3-1 victory over the Marlins.
"I still have this lasting impression of seeing that game in Miami when he struck out 10," McCatty said. "The guy is a No. 1 starter. Gio [Gonzalez] has done great, all of the guys are doing great, but Stephen is who he is. I'm not knocking anybody else. Here is a guy that is pretty special. You send your No. 1 guy. In my opinion, he is it."
Johnson added that Gonzalez will be scheduled to pitch the second game on April 7.
Strasburg will be the fifth Nationals pitcher -- Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, John Patterson and Odalis Perez are the others -- to have an Opening Day assignment.
Johnson said he had Strasburg on his mind as the first-game pitcher since the Winter Meetings in December. Prior to Tuesday, Strasburg was not having a productive Spring Training, allowing eight runs in 9 2/3 innings. Johnson said Strasburg was pitching like it was the seventh game of the World Series, trying to blow hitters away with his fastball.
But things were different on Tuesday. Strasburg pitched five innings and allowed a run on two hits in a 2-0 loss to the Mets.
"He settled in last night and showed me what kind of pitcher he is," Johnson said. "He didn't overthrow. He had much better location. In a nutshell, he pitched."
Said Strasburg, "It's still a work in progress. I think as the start went along, I got more comfortable, feeling the pitches and stuff. I'm getting a lot closer to where I want to be during the start the season. I have a few more [starts] in Spring Training. I'm just going to try to build off that, and I'll go into the season ready to go."
Strasburg missed most of last season because he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. After he returned in September, he appeared in five games and had a 1.50 ERA. He is expected to pitch 160 innings this season.
Outfielder Jayson Werth admired the fact that Strasburg worked hard after elbow surgery to become a No. 1 starter.
"It's a testament to Stephen, really. He has put in the time. He had done all the things that he needs to do," Werth said. "That's not an easy thing to go through. I've never been through it, but I know many guys who have. To get back where he is, that's just pure hard work. To get the nod for Opening Day, that's a bench mark in his career. It's probably the first of many. It's well deserved."
Johnson said the weather or innings limits did not play a role in deciding when Strasburg would start his season.
"I've heard these different theories from the experts, but I have a little experience in that area, too," Johnson said. "Everything in my baseball mind says to pitch him where he wants to pitch. You got to shut him down, you shut him down. End of story.
"Some college professor may dream up that if you are a fifth starter and you missed two or three starts, you can actually pitch the clincher for the playoffs. They have it all figured out. I like to put my best foot forward from the get-go, and it's not about Stephen Strasburg. It's about the Washington Nationals. So I'm going to put my best foot forward each and every step of the way."