As Nationals players scurried to their places for the first live batting practice of the spring Sunday morning, an irresistible possibility surfaced on Field 1. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper – first overall picks in 2009 and 2010, the most-hyped pitching and hitting prospects of all-time – jogged to the same diamond.
But as Strasburg took the mound to kick off the live batting practice, Harper grabbed his glove and trotted to the outfield to shag. Prospectalooza 2012 would have to wait. When the showdown fizzled, the players showed their personalities – Harper was aware and disappointed, while Strasburg was ambivalent.
“Oh, absolutely, I wanted to face him so bad,” Harper said. “I just wanted to see what he was about. If he made me look stupid, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see what he’s got.”
“Was I looking forward to it? No, I’m just trying to get my work in,” Strasburg said. “It’s not like they’re out there trying to do these perfect matchups of like the top prospects of all time. He’s out there tying to get his looks. I’m out there trying to throw strikes. We’re on the same team.”
While professing his desire to step in against Strasburg, Harper was not about to lobby for the chance in his next round of live batting practice.
“I don’t know if I’d want it,” Harper said. “I don’t know that I want to face him. I’m glad he’s on my team. It would just be fun to step in there and see what he looks like from that angle. I watched him from the dugout when I was in Harrisburg. That’s as close as I want to get to that.”
Other Nationals found out why. Veteran Mark DeRosa stepped into the cage first and, in his first round, simply watched seven pitches zip by. DeRosa circled out of the batting cage, smirked at pitching coach Steve McCatty and mouthed, “Damn!”
“That’s special,” DeRosa said. “That’s what that is.”
DeRosa had never faced Strasburg, but he had obviously become well aware of him. On the night of Strasburg’s debut, former Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis, a friend from their time together in Atlanta, sent DeRosa a text message imploring him to watch Strasburg’s start: “You need to watch this,” it read. DeRosa watched the start streaming on his computer.
“It looks like he’s not even trying out there, and it’s just exploding out of his hands,” DeRosa said. “He threw me a splitter or a changeup, or whatever it was. It looked like a two-seamer, it looked like a split, it looked like three different things. Now I can tell the difference [between it and his fastball]. His heater’s got a little jump on it at the end. You lose it for a second coming out of his hand.”
“I expected nothing less than unhittable stuff,” DeRosa said. “I was proud to put the ball in play.”
As Strasburg walked off mound, Gio Gonzalez bounded out to the middle of the diamond. “That’s going to be a tough act to follow right there,” he yelled.
Gonzalez managed. Ramos exchanged his catcher’s gear for a bat and dug in. He had caught Gonzalez in the bullpen in the preceding days and was astounded by Gonzalez’s curveball, which he said has the looping break of a typical curve but the late, biting break of a slider.
“His curveball, I’ve never seen one like it before,” Ramos said. “I saw a quick slider, but not a quick curveball. It’s not big and slow. It’s big and quick. I want to see that curveball in a game.”
“It was a really good hook,” said Rick Ankiel, who also batted against Gonzalez. “It was good to see him.”
Ankiel and DeRosa faced both Strasburg and Gonzalez, two of the most electric young pitchers in baseball, on their first day of live pitching this year. “I wasn’t excited about getting [Strasburg] and Gio the first day,” DeRosa said. “But I gotta think everything is going to kind of pale in comparison.”