PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. — The paper cups, packs of sunflower seeds and water bottles inside the Washington Nationals’ dugout remained in their places, pardoned by the new, collected Stephen Strasburg. The first inning of his first spring training start had been, in Strasburg’s own words, “a bit of a debacle,” replete with a home run off the bat of a Lilliputian middle infielder.
“Last year at this time, if he would have done what he did in that first inning, we would have seen gloves flying, cups flying,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He was pretty fairly composed today.”
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.
In the dugout, he talked with catcher Chris Snyder. “You know, I gave up a home run my first outing last year,” Strasburg said. “And it was you who hit it.” They both laughed — Snyder, then with the Astros, had crushed a 3-1 fastball to left in Strasburg’s first spring start in 2012.
“Now I kind of realize that we want to play into October,” Strasburg said. “So there’s a lot of time to figure things out you’ve just got to stay the course.”
Strasburg has gained more comfort in the Nationals’ clubhouse every year, and this spring he has seemed more relaxed, more at ease than ever before. He doesn’t have to face the ceaseless hype from his rookie season, or the drain of recovery from Tommy John surgery, or the nonstop questions about an innings limit.
“He’s just so happy to have all that stuff behind him,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “That was a tough year for him. For him to go through what he went through, work his butt off as much as he did, throw the ball as well as he did – he won 15 games. For him to pitch that consistently coming off of a season where he had a reconstruction surgery, to do that and then to not be able to finish and go through what we all went through, that’s got to be tough. Not only is he excited, but obviously we’re excited to have him for the whole year. I’m ready to see what he can do with 30 starts.”
Strasburg wants to tweak his game this spring in a counterintuitive way. He is one of the most breathtaking pitchers in the majors because of the mind-bending paths his pitches travel, but he would actually like his pitches — especially his sinker — to move less, but with more purpose.
“A hitter can see it,” Strasburg said earlier this spring. “Obviously, it looks cooler on TV when you’re watching it, when a guy is throwing something that’s move like this” — Strasburg waved his hand in a sweeping motion — “or dropping off. But a hitter can see it a lot earlier. I’m trying to get away from that and get more consistent, tighter pitches that are going to break maybe a little bit less, but sharper and later.”
His desire to adapt and improve, even after a season in which, at 23, he struck out 197 batters in 1591 / 3 innings, is something his teammates have come to know about him.
“He could go nine innings, complete-game shutout and strike out 12 guys. He thinks he should have struck out 15,” Zimmerman said. “When that changes and he becomes satisfied, that’s when we’ll all kind of be a little scared. I don’t think that will happen.”