Over the next eight months, the Nationals may take the field some 200 times — 35 games in the Grapefruit League, 162 in the regular season and perhaps 20 or so more in October. “It starts now,” Strasburg said in the visitors’ clubhouse of Tradition Field on Saturday afternoon after he tossed 42 pitches over two innings in a 5-3 loss to the New York Mets in the Nationals’ spring training opener. It was his first appearance since the Nationals cut short his season last August.
Strasburg knows he will be there for every one of those games. The innings limit is gone, the incessant controversy it stirred buried. The journey ahead informed his reaction to the ragged first inning. He is in his fourth spring training, and he understands how to harness his competitiveness.
“You can’t really read into whether you have a good outing or a bad outing in spring training,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t count. It doesn’t go toward your regular season record. So this is the time where I just need to stay the course, not read into things too much, not try and go out there and throw in the bullpen and right the ship for the next time. Just keep it all the same and just know that as time goes on, the more and more times I get out there on the mound, it’s going to get a little bit better.”
The first start of a season has always spiked Strasburg’s adrenaline. High school, college, spring training, regular season — it doesn’t matter. “As much as I try and tell myself to slow down,” he said, “I just can’t.”
In the first inning Saturday, Strasburg kept catching his cleat on the rubber. He could not find the right timing for separating his hands and balancing in his delivery. His body lurched forward and he tried to keep pace with his arm, which caused him to “yank” his fastball — which zipped consistently at 96 and 97 mph — over the outside corner.
The Mets took advantage. Kirk Niewenhuis led off by running the count full and ripping a single up the middle. Shortstop Ruben Tejada worked a 3-2 count, too, before he launched a fly ball to deep left-center. The wind carried it over the fence, and Tejada, who has hit two career homers in 1,132 plate appearances, had put Strasburg in an instant 2-0 hole.
“It seems like that’s just what happens for me every spring training,” Strasburg said. “It’s going to take a little while for me to get a little more comfortable, a little better rhythm out there.”
Strasburg needed 31 pitches to escape the first, almost all of them fastballs. He only threw six off-speed pitches — five curves, one change-up — as he focused on command of his sinker. He worked on his curve in the second, a 1-2-3 inning. Manager Davey Johnson had limited him to 45 pitches, and so Strasburg was done.