VIERA, FLA. — Two eventful years have passed since Stephen Strasburg made his first spring training start, a span that included his morphing into a full-blown phenom, his harrowing Tommy John surgery, his laborious recovery, his triumphant return and his happy arrival at this Washington Nationals spring training as, to use his preferred phrase, “just another donkey.”
Through all of that, one thing had not changed between then and 1:08 p.m. Sunday afternoon: the nerves Strasburg feels when he climbs the mound to begin a new season. “Every single time,” he said. “College, my whole life, it’s always the first game.”
Fighting his typical first-start jitters, Strasburg still drew more positives than negatives from his spring debut, which came in a 10-2 loss to the Houston Astros. On a cool, windy afternoon at Space Coast Stadium, Strasburg struck out three batters, yielded three hits, walked none and was charged with two runs, the first coming on a solo home run by Astros catcher Chris Snyder, the second scoring after he had departed with two outs in the third inning.
Strasburg relied on his fastball but mixed in all of his pitches, striking out Brian Bogusevic on a change-up and freezing Chris Johnson with a knee-bending, 2-2 curveball. His fastball, according to one scout’s radar gun, hovered between 92 and 96 mph. He had trouble finding consistent command, working three-ball counts to two of his first three batters and missing his spot with off-speed pitches.
In the end, Strasburg came away most encouraged by the fitness of his right arm. He spent the offseason doing yoga and continuing to rebuild arm strength. Sunday, he felt a significant improvement in how strong he felt between innings. He knew he was erratic, losing a few fastballs high, spiking a few breaking balls short of home plate. The touch will come with more time on the mound. Sunday, he assured himself he was as strong as ever.
“The biggest thing I noticed was, it was very easy for me to go out there, even going into the third inning,” Strasburg said. “I felt like I could have gone at least a few more. I definitely noticed the difference. It just felt a lot stronger. It didn’t feel like it was getting tired as fast. It was pretty much a breeze.”
From the first pitch, a high fastball to Jordan Schafer, Manager Davey Johnson sensed Strasburg overthrowing. “He had a little adrenaline out there,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how hard he was throwing, but he was amped. He was loaded for bear.”
Strasburg has come to expect one side effect from his first-start jitters. His velocity typically decreases, because he concentrates on slowing his delivery down in an effort to throw strikes. He did not reach his maximum velocity Sunday, which bothered no one. Soon enough, “I’ll be able to let it eat,” Strasburg said.
But, then, he has also continued his new approach from last fall. When he returned, Strasburg focused on precision, sacrificing a few mph from his powerhouse fastball for better control and deception. American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander underwent a similar shift, to great effect.
“Ideally, it would be to get quick outs,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t really matter how you get them out. Strikeouts are cool and stuff, it’s obviously what the fans like. As far as being a complete pitcher, if you can get a guy out with one pitch instead of three or four or five, it makes you more valuable, because you can go deeper in the game.
“I want to be the type of pitcher that, like [Roy] Halladay, [Cliff] Lee, those guys go seven, eight, nine [innings] every time out. It’s just something that I’ve got to focus on.”
Strasburg cruised through a 1-2-3 first inning, inducing a lazy flyball and a weak grounder before striking out Bogusevic. Fernando Martinez smacked a one-out double off him in the second, but otherwise Strasburg rolled through the inning unscathed.
At that point, Strasburg had thrown 28 of the 45 pitches the Nationals had allotted. He seemed to be finding a rhythm, dusting Chris Johnson with a filthy pitch sequence: a 1-2 fastball at the eyes followed by a 2-2 curve that had Johnson ducking out of the way before it pierced the strike zone.
And Snyder came to the plate. Strasburg fooled Snyder with two curves, but neither found the strike zone as the count ran to 3-1. He threw a fastball trying get back into the count — “That was like, ‘Here it is, hit it,’ ” Strasburg said.
And Snyder did, yanking it deep down the line in left, just inside the foul pole. Even if Snyder had homered, Strasburg left an impression.
“When he throws that fastball, it gets on you,” Snyder said. “And then he buckled me with that curveball. He’s got good ride on [the fastball]. It’ll ride back through the zone. It’s definitely live stuff. Him coming off Tommy John and being Day 2 of spring training, he’s definitely got good stuff.”
Schafer followed with a double down the first base line, a ground ball out of Mark DeRosa’s reach. He came back to strike out Marvin Gonzalez swinging over a curve, but by then he had exhausted 44 pitches. Out came Johnson, and Strasburg trudged off the mound, ready to continue with the work of his spring as just another pitcher.
“I know there’s going to be room for improvement,” Strasburg said. “I think I was pretty happy with the way it went today.”