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Stephen Strasburg returns, Bryce Harper hits long homer

Stephen Strasburg on Saturday against the Mets. (John Bazemore/AP)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Stephen Strasburg made his first start since spraining his ankle, allowing four runs on four hits over four innings. He walked two and struck out two. He tossed 70 pitches, only 39 for strikes. Strasburg was solid early but unraveled in the third inning, giving up two home runs in the 10-1 loss to the Mets. Strasburg was capped at five innings, but he hit his pitch limit after four innings.

“It was good to get the pitch count back up there,” he said. “Obviously cruising early and then one bad inning. Got the pitches and I’m sure I’ll feel a lot better next time.”

Strasburg twisted his left ankle while working out last week. He missed a start, received treatment, threw bullpen sessions and got back on the mound in a major league spring training game on Saturday. He plants with his left leg in his delivery.

“It’s kinda like a trust factor,” he said. “You sprain your ankle really bad you’re bracing for it so it’s hard to get over that. I didn’t really feel anything alarming so it’s progress. I’ve just gotta keep going out there and I’m sure it’ll be an afterthought soon.”

“For me, he looked great,” Manager Matt Williams added. “It’s a little rust. You take that time off in the middle of the spring, you’re not going to be pinpoint coming back through it. But we got him through, which is good. That’s all we were looking for.”

Strasburg said the ankle injury only limited him by causing him to miss a start and cut down on his conditioning in between. He is scheduled to make one more spring start, one fewer than the other starters, which he said will have to be enough. His next start will be 85 pitches, ahead of potentially reaching 100 pitches in his first start of the season.

In the rough third inning, Strasburg gave up a double to Ruben Tejada and then walked Juan Lagares with two outs. Strasburg then gave up a long three-run home run to right field to Curtis Granderson. David Wright then took Strasburg deep to right, too. The wind was blowing out that way but both balls were well struck. He threw 32 pitches in that inning alone.

“I’m glad it happened now,” he said. “You’re gonna have those type of innings over the course of the season. It felt good. The biggest thing was trying to command the offspeed pitches and that comes with repetition.”

>>> Bryce Harper, who has been dealing with a stomach bug this week, provided one of the highlights of spring in the sixth inning, smashing a moonshot off 2014 NL rookie of the year Jacob deGrom. The right-hander had held the Nationals scoreless until that point but fired a 2-0 93 mph fastball over the plate to Harper, who didn’t miss. With a big hack, Harper sent the ball over the right field fence.

The wind was blowing out toward right field, but Harper still hit the ball hard. It hit the roof of the concession stands in right field and bounced into the trees beyond it.

“He’s powerful,” Williams said. “The times that he realizes he doesn’t have to do too much, he gets results. So the last four-five days before he got sick, he was really swinging it good. Then you take a couple days off, it takes a couple days to get back into it. But I think he’s right where he needs to be.”

Harper has hit two home runs this spring. He may be only hitting .242 (8 for 33) but he has looked sharper than that. He has drawn 11 walks and struck out 10 times.

“When he’s quiet with his lower half, everything works together really well for him,” Williams said. “He’s at that (30)-plus at-bat mark now and starting to see it better. … He’s one of those fortunate guys who doesn’t have to swing hard to hit it over the fence. It happens naturally for him. So the quieter he is on his lower half, the better. He was really quiet on that at-bat. He took a couple change-ups that were off the plate and got a good one to hit.”

In the bottom of the inning, Harper gave the Nationals a brief scare. Lucas Duda hit a ball down the right field line off left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. The ball bounced around in the right field corner and Harper misplayed it. He slipped on the gravel in foul territory, bracing himself with his hands. After he retook his position, Harper seemed to flex his right hand and wrist.

A trainer and Williams ran out to talk to Harper. Williams said Harper was fine. Harper stayed in the game, drew a walk in the eighth inning and was removed for a pinch-runner.

>>> Tanner Roark and Blevins each had up-and-down outings indicative of their springs. Blevins came on in the fifth inning with two outs, struck out left-handed Curtis Granderson and returned for the next frame. He got David Wright to ground out but Duda then hit him hard.

“Three feet the other way, it may be a groundout” Williams said. That’s the nature of baseball sometimes. But I like the way he went about it today.”

Blevins has given up eight earned runs in eight innings, including four home runs, but he has a strong track record over his career in Oakland. He had an inconsistent 2014 season yet help left-handed batters to a .160 average, finishing the season strong. But according to, the Nationals have dangled Blevins, with another left-handed reliever who is out of options, Xavier Cedeno, to teams that are seeking southpaws. The Mets are among the teams looking for left-handed relief help so it was very fortuitous that both Nationals faced New York.

Cedeno looked better on Saturday, tossing a scoreless seventh inning. Cedeno is behind left-handers Matt Thornton and Blevins on the depth chart. He must pass through waivers to stay but, given the need for left-handed relievers across baseball, he may get snatched up. Cedeno has give up three earned runs over eight innings.

Roark, on the other hand, has been inconsistent with his command. He gave up five runs, only two earned on five hits over 1 1/3 innings on Saturday. He has give up 12 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings. The Nationals have made Roark work as a reliever, bouncing around from multiple-inning reliever to coming on mid-inning, a year after a stellar season as a starter. Williams said he isn’t concerned about Roark.

“Just his command hasn’t been as sharp as it’s normally been,” he said. “But it’s a little bit of getting used to the bullpen. It’s a little bit of trying to find his rhythm down there getting loose. All of those things are important. So the more experience he gets, the better he’ll be. I’m not concerned about it.”

>>> Clint Robinson had another strong game at the plate and has kept himself in the mix for a bench role. The left-handed first baseman-corner outfielder went 2 for 4, and is hitting .349 (15 for 43) with eight extra-base hits. Williams spoke glowingly about Robinson’s short, simple and repeatable swing.

“I thought he swung the bat really well. He’s aggressive. He’s not waiting around. And the first one that gets in there in his happy zone, he takes a whack at it. He swung the bat really well. The two balls he hit the other way are indicative of him seeing the ball really well. Great at-bats.”