As the spring’s first batch of pitchers – Group 1A – fired their fastball-changeup bullpen sessions, Davey Johnson wandered behind Stephen Strasburg. Johnson could tell Strasburg looked happy. Between pitches, as Strasburg switched from the stretch to his wind-up, Johnson sidled next to him.
“It’s nice to be one of the boys, isn’t it?” Johnson said.
Since he first set foot in Nationals spring training in 2010, Strasburg had longed for the brand of normalcy he’ll have now, neither fighting the attention that comes with being the most hyped pitching prospect of all time nor rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He’s just getting ready for the season with the rest of his teammates.
“Yeah,” Strasburg said. “It is.”
>>>Johnson did not get a chance to watch Gio Gonzalez, the left-hander acquired from the Oakland A’s for four prospects this December, throw his first side session with the Nationals. While the rest of the groups threw in the bullpen by the backfields, Gonzalez and Sean Burnett threw in a batting cage equipped with everything hooked up to a strobe light to capture images for the Nationals’ video board this year.
“It was awesome,” Gonzalez said. Pitching coordinator Spin Williams kept an eye on Gonzalez, who said his arm felt “awesome,” too. Gonzalez has a gaggle of new teammates to meet, but his gregarious, outgoing personality should make it easy for him to fit in.
Gonzalez knows two Nationals players from long, long ago. He and first baseman Chris Marrero first met when they played T-ball, and they played together at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla. “He’s still the same guy,” Marrero said. “He’s still funny.”
At Pace, Gonzalez pitched against shortstop Ian Desmond’s team when both squads were ranked among the best teams in Florida. “He dealt,” Desmond said. “But I got a couple hits.” Across the room, Gonzalez nodded grudgingly.
“Just watching the scenery, see what’s going on, is the best thing I can do for myself right now,” Gonzalez said. “Like I said, I just want to come here. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Just enjoy, and see where it goes from there. From what I see there are some great players here, and I’m just trying to be part of it.”
He tried on his batting helmet today, trying to get his first taste of hitting on a regular basis. In nine career plate appearances, all in interleague play, Gonzalez has no hits and four strikeouts. Once, against the San Francisco Giants, Gonzalez whiffed so violently he stumbled to the ground. Now, he says, he’ll be more prepared.
“I studied some of the videos from that movie ‘Benchwarmers,’” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully in due time I can get it past the pitcher’s mound without falling on my backside.”
>>> Last year at this time, Drew Storen resolved to ditch his distinctive slide step, when he keeps his front leg straight and leans slowly toward the plate. After he struggled and Jayson Werth recommended he bring it back, Storen began using the slide step again for good.
Storen utilized the move with a twist today in his first throwing session. He rotated his hips a few extra degrees, a more pronounced version of the straight-leg slide step. “Last year I wasn’t doing it at all, so now I’m really kind of exaggerating it this year,” Storen said. “When you do that, it just lets your arm be free and easy.”
Storen may or may not use the pronounced rotation in games. “We’ll see once I start turning it up,” he said. “Ideally, I would kind of smooth it out more, be a little bit quicker.”
Experimenting comes naturally for Storen. He constantly tinkers with his motion and delivery, which pitching coach Steve McCatty has previously implored him to dial back. Last year, for example, Storen set his hands lower and lower in his delivery as the year moved on.
Storen does not want to start tinkering too much, but he feels he can give himself freedom so long as he maintains a couple fundamental principles in his motion.
“It’s a matter of knowing what makes you successful and just kind of maximizing that and watching yourself,” Storen said. “I think change is good, but you don’t want to reinvent the wheel at the same time. That’s why you try to simplify things, if you have a couple things that you just think about. I feel good now. It’s just a matter of staying on top of the ball and using my lower half. If I do that, I’ll be in good shape.”
>>> Chien-Ming Wang experienced a few minor health issues in the past month. First, he slipped on wet grass while training and sprained a finger on his left hand. Then he felt soreness in his surgically repaired right shoulder after an early throwing motion.
Athletic trainer Lee Kuntz said neither ailment is anything to worry about – the sprain is on his glove hand, anyway, and the pain in his shoulder was typical spring soreness, not a symptom pertaining to his previous shoulder issues. “He’s fine,” Kuntz said.
Wang threw without issue today, but Johnson wants to make sure he progresses slowly and does not risk re-injuring the shoulder he spent two years rehabbing.
“I had a conversation with him a couple days ago,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘You know how to take care of yourself. You know your body better than anybody else. Don’t try to accelerate your pace. Go at the pace you’ll be most comfortable with to get ready for the opening of the season.’ ”
After Wang’s throwing session, Johnson approached Wang again.
“ ‘I said, ‘How you feeling, because you’re looking great,’ ” Johnson said. “He said, ‘I feel great.’ ”