WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A close reading of Stephen Strasburg’s Nationals history yields at least one reliable truth: When he struggles — really struggles, not just flashes mortal — something is wrong. For example, after he carried a perfect record into July last season, then gave up six and nine runs in back-to-back August starts, Strasburg was not just regressing to the mean. He was hurt, with a torn pronator tendon in his right arm.
So when Strasburg gave up six runs on seven hits in two bruising innings last week against the Cardinals, Manager Dusty Baker said, “that was a sure sign that something was going on.”
That something, Strasburg admitted, was that he was tipping pitches. Pitching coach Mike Maddux — who noticed the same thing in Tanner Roark early last year and quickly corrected it — found the problem while scrutinizing video before his start against the Tigers on Monday. Strasburg is experimenting with throwing exclusively from the stretch this spring, something he said helps keep his mechanics simple and his delivery smooth. But in focusing on the switch to the stretch full-time, Strasburg fell into a pre-pitch pattern — one the Cardinals recognized after seeing him twice in two starts.
“I always have a tendency to tip pitches. I think it’s just the way I grip the ball,” Strasburg said. “My hands are pretty big, and if I’m not paying attention, I do little things. They’ve got everything on video, so they know all the little things that I do.”
To correct the problem, Maddux suggested Strasburg set his hands closer to his body. Instead of spinning the ball before coming set — or some similar, less deliberate motion — Strasburg tried to reach into his glove and set his grip right away Monday. The change seemed to work, as Strasburg allowed two runs in four innings and struck out five.
“From some of the swings they were taking on it,” Strasburg said. “It didn’t seem like they knew what was coming.”
The only hitter who seemed to have a jump was Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, who launched a 1-0 fastball high into the left field berm to account for one of the two runs Strasburg allowed in what turned out to be a 3-3 tie.
>>> Strasburg threw to Matt Wieters, who made his second start of the spring Monday. Wieters finished 0 for 2 and is hitless in his first four at-bats as a National.
Wieters looked somewhat shaky in one of his few defensive chances, bouncing a throw to third when Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias tried to steal the base. But the health of his throwing arm, which is now a full season removed from Tommy John surgery, probably should not be judged on a throw obstructed by a batter doing his best to disrupt the process.
More importantly, at least by any reasonable March standard, Strasburg said his daughter and Wieters’s young son are good friends. “They just go crazy together,” the 28-year-old ace said.
>>> The Nationals made their second round of cuts before Monday’s game when they optioned righties Jimmy Cordero and Austin Voth to Class AAA Syracuse and catcher Raudy Read to Class AA Harrisburg. Nonroster righties Dustin Antolin and Taylor Hill and infielder Corban Joseph also left for minor league camp, as did Drew Ward and Andrew Stevenson.
Ward and Stevenson impressed in their first major league camp. Ward, a third baseman known for big power potential, homered twice in 10 games. Stevenson, who made a name for himself with Nationals folks with an impressive Arizona Fall League showing, hit .304 and played strong defense in 13 spring games. Both of them finished last season with Class AA Harrisburg, and both seem likely to push for Class AAA time at some point this season.
When asked who stood out to him at times this spring, Baker mentioned Stevenson and Ward multiple times. While Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez emerged as the most prominent Nationals prospects in past seasons, and Victor Robles and Juan Soto have emerged as the elite prospects of the future, Ward and Stevenson represent a more imminent wave of Nationals’ position-playing prospects — a far-less-heralded group. Neither seems likely to crack regular big league duty this season, but both are progressing into the type of players the Nationals drafted them to be. Stevenson projects to a contact-hitting, hard-nosed defender and looked like one this spring. Ward projects as a power-hitting corner infielder who can play solid defense, and he also looked the part.
“[Seeing them] gives me some input in case something happens,” Baker said. ” … to say I’d like to have this guy, or a guy that you would follow their progress and how they’re doing daily. You put a face with a name.”