The jitters from Stephen Strasburg’s first spring training start vanished tonight. He threw his fastball a few notches faster. He commanded his curveball with more precision. He felt in complete control. And then one harmless-looking groundball came rolling at him.
In his second start, Strasburg sharpened every aspect of his performance, expect the one no one had really considered may ever be a problem. He allowed the Miami Marlins two runs on three hits and a walk while striking out two in three innings. He threw 46 pitches, then tossed about a dozen more in the bullpen afterward to reached his allotted 60.
“As far as progressing and building up, I felt a lot more under control out there,” Strasburg said. “I was a little jumpy the first start. This start I was able to really feel it coming out of my hand and locate it a lot better.”
The night was a success — Strasburg had made the progress he wanted and came through the start confident in the condition of his arm. But it would have been spotless had Strasburg fielded a hard comebacker that led to a 22-pitch third inning.
Bryan Petersen led off the third inning with a hard grounder back at the mound. Strasburg bent over and knocked it down, but it trickled past him. He took a few steps back, scooped up the ball, spun and … let the ball slip out of his hands as Petersen cruised past first, safe with a single.
“They tell you, if you get a ball hit hard at you, if you bobble it or whatever, to take your time,” Strasburg said. “I was a little sped up. I fielded it. I went to pick it up. I just turned, and I saw a lot of red, and I decided to throw it at Petersen.
“It was just something that I can learn from. I couldn’t tell you the last time where it’s gotten past me where I had to run backwards and try to turn around and try to throw it. I mean, it’s a tough play to begin with. Bottom line is, I got to just slow down and just throw it to first to first, and if he beats it out, he beats out.”
As Strasburg missed most of last season with Tommy John surgery, his rehab accounted for every last detail. But as he sweated in the Florida sun and toured the Nationals’ minor league affiliates, Strasburg could not replicate the feel for fielding a shot back at the mound and calmly making a play, no matter how much pitcher fielding practice he did.
“It’s different,” Strasburg said. “You do [pitchers fielding practice, or PFP] all the time, and you try and simulate it to where it’s a game-like situation. But you’ve got the adrenaline going. It’s hard, because they’re obviously not going to hit shots back at you at practice, and then intentionally bobble it like that or drop your glove and try and turn around knowing that a guy is going down the line. It’s something where I know what I did wrong. I’m glad it happened in a game like this and not necessarily one where it mattered.”
With Petersen on first, the Marlins made Strasburg work. Kyle Skipworth drilled a 3-0 fastball to the warning track in right. Jose Reyes fouled off four 1-2 pitches, then smoked a fastball into center field past Rick Ankiel, a great at-bat. (The official scorer originally gave Ankiel an error, but later changed the ruling to a triple.) Emilio Bonifacio slapped a single to left with the infield in.
With one hard-hit ball, the Marlins had scored two runs and, by the time the inning ended, ran Strasburg’s pitch count up to 46, 22 for the inning. The Nationals set the pitch count for their starters at 60 for their second time through, but they ended Strasburg’s night and sent him to the bullpen to finish his work.
“Because he had the long inning, I just didn’t want to run him back out there,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I would have done that with anybody. … [Twenty-two] pitches are a whole lot for him to throw in an inning. It’s just too early.”
While on the mound, Strasburg was sharp. Strasburg threw his fastball between 94 and 98 miles per hour, according to a scout, up a few ticks from his debut, when he slowed down his motion because of extra nerves and sat between 92 and 96. The radar readings on the new scoreboard at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., ran hot – in an at-bat to Giancarlo Stanton, Strasburg hit 101 and 103 on the stadium gun.
“With him,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said, “I’m not sure.”
Strasburg struck out Hanley Ramirez looking at a 3-2 fastball, but Strasburg’s most impressive at-bat came in the second against Stanton. To lead off the second, Strasburg blew a fastball past Stanton. Then Stanton looked at another fastball on the corner, strike two. Strasburg threw a slow curve, which Stanton simply admired. Strike three.
In his next start, Strasburg will throw about 70 pitches, Johnson said. Between now and then, he will throw a bullpen session, play long toss, all the typical between-start preparation. And one more thing.
“Just got to go do some PFP tomorrow,” Strasburg said.