Stephen Strasburg faced a dilemma Tuesday afternoon. Strasburg’s competitive nature compelled him to beat Mets hitters by any available means. Strasburg also knew he would face those same hitters six days from now, on opening day in New York, in a game that actually counts. He wanted to win, but he also wanted to conceal his arsenal and his strategy.
“It affected the way I attacked them,” Strasburg said. “But you get out there in the heat of the moment and you definitely want to go out there compete, so I wasn’t just giving in to anybody.”
In a 7-3 win, Strasburg struck a balance in 5 2/3 windswept innings that punctuated his spring. He allowed three runs in the third inning, including one on a Travis d’Arnaud homer that rode a gust over the left field fence, but otherwise posted zeroes. Strasburg yielded five hits, walked two and struck out seven. He threw 84 pitches, sprinkling in his new slider and firing his fastball mostly between 93 and 95 miles per hour.
Strasburg ended his spring with a 1.83 ERA over 19 2/3 innings with 17 strikeouts and six walks. He came into spring training focused on improving his performance holding runners on base and implementing the slider. He felt he succeeded on both counts. He gained consistency and comfort with the timing in his delivery from the stretch. He folded his slider into his repertoire.
“I think it was a natural pitch that I think could really help my game,” Strasburg said. “Just based on what guys were doing off me in years past, it’s kind of an equalizer. They can’t really sell out on a single pitch anymore.”
Strasburg’s slider may help most against left-handed hitters who can no longer feel secure diving into the plate as they swing at what they assume will be a fastball. But Strasburg will not hesitate to use the pitch in any situation, against any hitter, so long as it does not detract from his already estimable array.
“Yeah, I’m going to throw it,” Strasburg said. “Why not? But at the same time I feel like I’ve got some pitches that I’ve had success with for a few years now and I had those pitches, those were the ones that got me to the big leagues, so I’m not going to dump any other one. It’s just another pitch they’re going to have to get ready for.”
** Two days after Matt Williams won his first challenge of the spring against the Mets, he earned another replay victory today. In the seventh inning, with two outs, Denard Span dove forward to catch a sinking liner. The umpire called the play a hit, but Span immediately raised his glove and other Nationals’ defenders – Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon especially – protested.
“I knew I had caught the ball,” Span said.
Williams never asked Span directly. But Desmond asked Span if he caught it. Span shook his head, and Desmond alerted Williams he should challenge the call. Once Williams called for the challenge, Werth and Bryce Harper were so confident they jogged into the dugout. In 1 minute, 22 seconds it took for umpires to reverse the call, Werth tugged on a batting helmet and started swinging in the on-deck circle.
“As long as they’re going to get it right, I think it’s worthwhile,” Span said. “It felt a little bit like NFL Sunday, I’m going to be honest with you. You’re kind of waiting for the ruling on the field. Everybody is standing around.”
** The Nationals used their entire starting lineup, except with Jose Lobaton substitued for Wilson Ramos, and the regulars played all nine innings. Span went 3 for 4 and raised his average to .347. (Less encouraging, Span has drawn one walk all spring.) Harper continued his surge, blasting a three-run home run off a flag in right-center field. Ryan Zimmerman drilled his second homer of the spring, too.
** The Nationals will handle cuts today. Immediately after the game, pitching coach Steve McCatty led reliever Ryan Mattheus into Williams’s office. The clubhouse closed to reporters quickly. We’ll have more later shortly.