WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The last time Stephen Strasburg walked off a major league mound, Dave Martinez watched from a few yards away, resigned to the dominance of the big right-hander who had just completed seven scoreless innings in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
Five months later, Martinez was once again a few yards away as Strasburg lumbered off the mound. This time, he offered him a fist pound. This time, the stakes weren’t quite as high. Strasburg threw two innings in his first start of the spring, surrendered a run and struck out two in the Nationals’ 8-1 win over the Astros.
Results don’t matter much at spring training times like these, but things like velocity and movement can be telling. Strasburg’s first pitch of the spring was a 98 mph fastball placed perfectly for strike one. His change-up, so unforgiving in October, looked just as devastating in March.
“He threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “ … For me, it’s about keeping the stress level down and just letting him get his work in.”
Strasburg threw 29 pitches, 17 for strikes, and worked in the fastball, change and curveball. He threw 19 more pitches in the bullpen afterward, compiling a relatively heavy workload for an early March day. If tossing his fastball at 97 throughout the outing is any indication, he seemed to handle that workload without much trouble.
“It’s just being older, getting some dad strength in there,” Strasburg said. “I guess it just shows all the hard work in the offseason is still there and it’s just about being smart, listening to the arm and putting in the work between starts and keeping it there the whole season.”
Strasburg threw from the stretch, as became his new norm last year, and acknowledged that fewer moving parts allows him to click his mechanics into place more quickly. But getting his mechanics in-sync has rarely been the problem. Keeping them there through the nicks and bruises of a big league season has become his unending struggle.
Pitching from the stretch couldn’t keep him off the disabled list last season, but it did help him stay available in October. Martinez said the Nationals won’t baby Strasburg this spring, just acknowledging that he’s their No. 2 starter and they hope to keep things that way. This new coaching staff hasn’t been trained to hold its breath in Strasburg outings. He gave them no reason to start doing so Saturday.
Strasburg struck out Carlos Correa looking. The run he allowed scored when Brian Goodwin charged and bobbled a base hit to center that needn’t have scored a run. Strasburg’s own throwing error put the runner in scoring position in the first place. But other than that, Strasburg looked in complete control, painting the black at 97 while dropping confounding change-ups that tied up lefties.
Still, even for pitchers not named Strasburg, dropping a 98 mph fastball on the first hitter of the spring could raise legitimate concern. Most veterans like to ease into these things, though his teammate, Max Scherzer, hit high-90s with his fastball this week, too. Justin Verlander’s fastball ticked into the mid-90s Saturday. Strasburg’s initial strength does not qualify as anomalous.
“It’s early,” Martinez said. “but it’s nice knowing that he feels that good.”
After his outing, Strasburg laughed off talk about Cy Youngs and the best one-two starting punches in the game. Martinez has made clear all spring that if both Scherzer and Strasburg are healthy, Scherzer will start Opening Day. Strasburg will slot behind him. Saturday, Strasburg showed the kind of stuff that could help him dethrone Scherzer as the National League Cy Young Award winner. Martinez saw it in October, and again in early March. The key, of course, will be that he sees it from April to September, too.
— Bryce Harper returned to the lineup for the first time since undergoing a procedure to alleviate an ingrown toenail Wednesday. He took three at-bats as the designated hitter, struck out twice and walked once — and took plenty of full-throttle swings in the process. After he walked, Harper attempted a steal on a 1-1 pitch that Miguel Montero fouled off, a decision that surprised Martinez. Martinez had told Harper to take things easy in his first game back. “That’s a good indication he’s feeling ok,” Martinez said.
— Carter Kieboom, the infielder Baseball America ranks as the fourth-best prospect in the Nationals’ system, made his Grapefruit League debut Saturday. His older brother, Spencer, caught in the game, which marked the first time the brothers — the younger 20 years old, the elder 26 — took a major league field together. This particular field was a long way from South Capitol Street, and the careers of both brothers don’t seem likely to carry them there soon, either. For now, a bright, balmy afternoon on a Grapefruit League field in West Palm Beach will do. The younger Kieboom successfully fielded a few chances in the field, and struck out in his only at-bat of the day. His brother went 0 for 2.
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