Stephen Strasburg fired 93 pitches through the brisk evening air tonight, which for him represented something more than a typical spring training checkpoint. In his major league career, Strasburg had surpassed that 93-pitch mark in only 24 starts. He has not often carried that kind of workload, and now he can.
“He’s a regular guy,” Manager Davey Johnson said afterward. “I treat him like everybody else. He’s a big machine.”
Even on March 16, two weeks and two days before he’ll make his second opening day start, Johnson sent Strasburg out for the sixth inning after he threw 81 pitches in the first five. For his 86th pitch, Strasburg fired a fastball over the outside corner to Brett Wallace. Behind home plate, a scout’s radar gun lit up with the answer to the question, “How’s his elbow?”: 97.
The Nationals plan to handle Strasburg with usual care, not the extreme caution they showed last year when they ended his season a month shy of the postseason. Tonight brought another example – a spring training in which his pitch count climbs above 90. In 5 1/3 innings, Strasburg struck out eight, allowed five hits (including a solo homer by old friend Rick Ankiel) and walked only the final batter he faced, Carlos Pena. He sneered as the last sinker he threw swerved inside and low, but in the end, the night was a success.
“It’s starting to click a little bit,” Strasburg said after the 4-2 loss to Houston. “The biggest thing is not really stressing about how the ball feels at the end. You’re still kind of building. I know that the more times I get out there and get my pitch count up, I’m going to feel just exactly the same as I came into the game.”
Strasburg has been adamant this spring about his desire to become a workhorse, and he believes pitch count plays a significant factor. He wants the Nationals to let him stay on the mound an extra inning, well into triple-digit pitches. Last year, he threw at least 105 pitches in just five of 28 starts. He wants that to change.
“I’m not trying to get out there and get used to throwing 90, 94 pitches,” Strasburg said. “You look at some of the top pitchers in the game, they go at least 110 every time out. I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m not saying that they’re going to let me do it. But I’m going to be physically ready for it.”
Saturday night, Strasburg rifled his fastball between 94 and 98 miles per hour. He mixed in changeups and curveballs to put away hitters, his backdoor curve moving with particular violence. His only hiccup came against Ankiel, his old teammate and friend. In their first encounter, Strasburg whiffed Ankiel looking at a curve – a pitch Ankiel, a former pitcher, helped Strasburg cultivate last year. Strasburg was more benevolent in the second at-bat, and Ankiel clobbered a homer over the right field wall.
“I signed two jerseys for him earlier, so I don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t have done that,” Strasburg said, smiling. “I gave him a heater right down the middle, too. No, he put a good swing on it. He’s an awesome guy. I still remember the advice he gave me with his curveball last year. It really took off. It’s gotten a lot better ever since then.”
Afterward, Johnson said Strasburg seemed ready to start the season now – “he’s capable now of doing what you want first time out,” he said. Strasburg has already made five starts, but in this long spring he will have to wait another two weeks before he can start trying to pitch deep into games that actually count.
“When you get to this point, when you get to 100 pitches, you’re like, ‘Alright, let’s get the season going,’ ” Strasburg said. “But it’s not the case. Just got to keep working, keep grinding.”
>>> During a spring elongated by the World Baseball Classic, Johnson has taken it easy on the Nationals since they arrived in early February. Now, though, Johnson has a new message for his regular starters.
“The vacation’s over,” Johnson said.
On Monday, Johnson plans to make another round of cuts and play his starting lineup on an everyday basis. The starters, even catchers Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki, will start playing nine innings per game. Johnson will back off again during the final week of camp, so as not to wear down his regulars before opening day. But he wants to use this week to get his players in rhythm and used to the daily grind.
“The whip starts Monday,” Johnson said. “It’s my time, boys. The party’s over.”