The Nationals took another step toward bridging the interminable gap between fake baseball and real baseball today. It was still fake baseball out on the backfields, but it was at least a real pitcher on the mound hurling the ball at a real batter in the box. There was an L-screen between them, but on Feb. 20 live batting practice will have to do.
“That’s always an exciting day,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Live BP, first day out of the chute. The pitchers are a little geeked up.”
Stephen Strasburg climbed the mound on Field 1 first. As Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, Chris Snyder and Chad Tracy cycled through the batting cage, Strasburg threw all of his pitches. They took 15 hacks against him, only seven of which left the cage. Only five of them were in fair territory. Moore made the best contact, rifling a hard two-hopper up the middle.
“Yeah,” Moore said, “he was telling me what’s coming. His stuff’s nasty. That’s everything you want in one of your starters.”
Strasburg has been tweaking the way his sinker breaks, looking for more consistency and more downward motion. Last year, he felt it too often darted sideways rather than vertically. Moore could see the difference.
“It looked like a lefty’s slider,” Moore said. “It was nasty. It was hard and late. His change-up looked really good today, too. He kept it down. It was just impressive to see. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
And according to catcher Wilson Ramos, Strasburg was only throwing “70 or 80 percent.” He, too, was impressed with the action on Strasburg’s improved sinker.
“A long time, I’ve caught him,” Ramos said. “Now his sinker is breaking down. That’s more effective.”
>>> Ross Detwiler replaced Strasburg, and he was just as impressive. He induced three swing-and-misses, which is a feat when the hitter knows what’s coming. Roger Bernadina nearly tripped after flailing at a curveball.
Davey Johnson pointed out that Detwiler always looks great in the spring – he has been in Viera since late January, one of the first to arrive. Johnson has also been on Detwiler to throw more breaking balls. His curveball fooled hitters who knew it was coming today.
“I don’t think it’s about developing it. I think it’s about trust,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “He’s got. It’s there. You have to confident when you’re throwing it. I think towards the end of [last] year, he’s got more success with it, which allows him to be more confident. Now, it’s good. It’s a good pitch for him to have, especially when everybody knows he’s going to throw a lot of sinkers. If he mixes some offspeed pitches in, I think it’ll put him over the top.”
>>> Ramos crushed one of Drew Storen’s fastballs, but no pitcher drew more unprompted praise from Johnson. Storen’s slider had the hitters chattering. Jayson Werth always uses live BP to just track pitchers, choosing to keep the bat on his shoulder. After he watched one Storen slider curl by, he nodded and went, “Wooo!”
“Nasty,” Johnson said.
>>> This report would not be complete, I suppose, without mentioning Bryce Harper. He tattooed one Ryan Mattheus pitch off the left-center field fence on three bounces. He still hits the ball very hard.
>>> Danny Espinosa launched one of right-hander Nathan Karns’s fastballs over the right-center field fence. He came to spring training confident his ability to play through the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. In his first try against live arms, he stung the ball. But he isn’t looking for confidence in the shoulder – he already has it.
“I don’t need to test it,” Espinosa said. “As the games start coming, it’ll tell me. But it feels strong enough to just do whatever I need to do. Like I said – just keep up on my maintenance, I don’t think it’s going to be affected.”
Espinosa was impressed with Karns, the reigning Nationals minor league pitcher of the year. Watching Karns up close, you can see what makes him so deceptive. He hides the ball behind his body in his wind-up, and his compact delivery makes the ball explode at the hitter.
“He just throws so easy,” Espinosa said. “His fastball and his change-up, they come out at the same exact spot. It’s just easy. There’s no change. That’s awesome. He throws firm. Real firm.
“Last year when a couple guys went on rehab stints, they were like, ‘This kid is good.’ I know everyone is excited to see him kind of grow.”
>>> Gio Gonzalez is feeling strong. Johnson could tell when, at the end of his 10 minutes, Gonzalez told Steve McCatty he wanted to throw one more curveball and one more fastball.
“I told Cat, ‘hey, if the arm’s going, the arm’s going,’ ” Gonzalez said.
McCatty put the kibosh on that. Gonzalez would not be getting any extra pitches.