Nats’ Stephen Strasburg shakes off scare, primed for opening day


Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws a practice pitch after being hit by a line drive. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Tranquility defined this Nationals spring training until Friday afternoon, when in the most frightening way imaginable it disappeared. Stephen Strasburg stood on the center of the diamond. His pitching coach, manager and trainer surrounded him. They inspected the hand he kept flexing and shaking.

The moment mercifully passed. Strasburg threw one pitch, and the team officials ambled back to the dugout. The line drive Prince Fielder had ripped back at him – “a bullet,” Manager Davey Johnson said — and off the base of his left hand rendered his wrist tender and red. “But nothing crazy,” Strasburg said. As quickly as it vanished, tranquility returned.

“It was a scare,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “No doubt about it.”

After everyone in a Nationals uniform caught their breath, Strasburg returned to the business of his penultimate spring training start. He allowed the Detroit Tigers three runs in six innings, striking out five and walking one. Matt Tuiasosopo clubbed a home run in the second inning, and the Tigers pecked away with singles to score another two runs in the fifth. Strasburg yielded seven hits total.

Strasburg will pitch once more before his opening day assignment April 1, but he may be finished in the Grapefruit League. Johnson said Strasburg’s next start could come on a backfield, when he will dial back from the 89 pitches he threw today to roughly 70.

“My arm felt great today,” Strasburg said. “I think my stamina is there. I felt as strong, if not looser, from the first inning to the sixth. I definitely could’ve gone back out there for the rest of the game, to be honest. That’s a good sign. It’s going in the right direction.”

Aside from mild frustration at the Tigers poking what he deemed to be weak singles on good pitches, Strasburg felt good about his outing. He mixed in curveballs in the count, throwing many for first-pitch strikes after Detroit’s lineup turned over. He uses the early curves to keep hitters from swinging early at fastballs.

“As much as you think they’re going to go in there and try to work the count and see a lot of pitches, they’re just not changing that,” Strasburg said. “They’re up there hacking, because they don’t want to see my offspeed. There’s guys where you just have to blow them away and make them hit your fastball. And there’s guys you have to be a bit more conservative with and a little bit smarter with. You’ve got to make them prove it.”

As his spring is coming to a close, Strasburg could reflect a bit. It is easy to forget that one year ago at this time, Strasburg had yet to spend opening day in a major league uniform. He faced more questions about the fitness of his surgically repaired elbow than the shutdown that would come to dominate his season. Strasburg cited a better, more precise curveball and a more refined change-up as his biggest improvements.

“Last year I was trying to find the feel for it,” Strasburg said. “Now the feel is there, it’s just going out and competing.”

Nine days from now, the only thing Strasburg will have to worry about is competing. He’ll climb the mound for opening day, the scare the Nationals experienced this afternoon barely a memory.

When Fielder smoked the ball back at him, Strasburg saw it coming clearly and tried to catch it. He stuck out his left arm, and the ball deflected off the point where his glove met the bottom of his hand.

“You got the adrenaline pumping,” Strasburg said. “I thought I could’ve caught it. It just took a while for it to kind of sink in that it hit me. It just kind of got numb, just shook it out and it was tender after that.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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James Wagner · March 22, 2013