Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Straburg impressed in three starts, but he probably won't make a fourth.
Sure, you could look at the two solo homers he served up in the top of the first inning against the Cardinals -- a blast to left-center by Tyler Greene on the game's first pitch and an opposite-field poke by Allen Craig two batters later -- and be worried that the guy's fastball can travel a long way when struck by a big-league hitter. But those were two minor blemishes in an otherwise impressive performance.
Strasburg faced 14 batters after giving up those two homers. He retired 11 of them and would have retired 12 had Ian Desmond not booted a first-inning grounder. He struck out seven of 11 Cardinals batters at one point. And while his pitch count of 73 was high for only four innings, it wasn't because he couldn't find the strike zone. On the contrary, he threw 53 of those pitches for strikes. St. Louis' batters just fouled a bunch of them off, especially Jason LaRue, who fouled seven straight in the fourth before finally striking out on a 92 mph sinker.
By the end of his four innings, Strasburg had put together his best overall outing of the spring, even though he was scored upon for the first time. Eight strikeouts. No walks. Some perfectly executed offspeed pitches, both slider/curves and change-ups.
Perhaps because he had the chance to go through a lineup twice for the first time, or perhaps because he was working with Ivan Rodriguez for the first time, Strasburg showed off his entire arsenal and established the many different ways he can retire an opposing hitter.
"I loved it," he said of pairing up with Rodriguez. "He really challenged me out there. He wanted me throwing curveballs to both sides of the plate. He wanted me throwing change-ups to righties. Fastballs in. Fastballs away. Fastballs up. Sinkers. Change-ups. Curveballs. Everything. That's a great thing, because he went out there with the confidence in me and all my pitches. All it was, was: Try to hit the spot, hit his glove."
Pudge certainly came away impressed with his 21-year-old batterymate.
"The kid, he never checked me off," Rodriguez said. "He did great. He did a tremendous job. ... The kid's pretty good."
How good? Well, let's total up Strasburg's three Grapefruit League starts and see what the numbers say: Nine innings, eight hits, two runs, one walk, 12 strikeouts, 149 pitches, 97 strikes.
(Aside from the high pitch count, you'd take that line over one complete game, right?)
Dig even deeper into the numbers and you realize just how effective Strasburg has been at keeping the ball down in the zone and how devastating his sinker can be. He's recorded 27 outs to date. Fourteen came via groundballs (two of them on a double play). Twelve came via strikeouts. One came on a pop-up to the first baseman.
That's right, he hasn't retired a single batter on a fly ball to the outfield.
"It says that my ball is moving enough to force weak contact," Strasburg said. "My pitch count is a little up. You're not going to have that many strikeouts every time out. So you really have to focus on good angles and really trusting your pitches. Throw it over that plate and let them make outs. I've been very happy. It's something I worked on in the [Arizona] Fall League: changing where I want the ball to enter the strike zone, if that makes any sense. Kind of changing the depth on it. I've been able to get a lot of groundballs."
In case you haven't figured it out by now, this guy can talk pitching on a sophisticated level. Ramon Ortiz, he's not.
After three starts, it's hard to come up with anything Strasburg hasn't done well. The best Jim Riggleman could come up with was this: His slide step to the plate is a tad too quick with runners on base.
Read that again. It's too quick. (Every pitcher should have such horrible things to worry about.)
"He's a very polished guy," Riggleman said. "He's competing. He's out there trying to get each hitter out. He's working with the catchers. He's doing everything you could ask him to do."
Sure sounds like a guy who's ready to pitch in the major leagues right now.
Alas, there's likely no surprise in store for Nats fans who dream of watching Strasburg face the Phillies and Mets in early April. The front office and coaching staffs plan to meet tomorrow morning and come up with the next round of cuts. Strasburg is almost certain to be sent to minor-league camp.
A plan is a plan, and Mike Rizzo intends to stick with his. Let the kid get a taste of life in the minor leagues first. Let him enjoy success at a couple of different levels of the system, then make the natural progression up to the majors at some point.
So hope you got a good glimpse of Strasburg in a Nationals uniform this spring. It's going to be a couple of months until you see that again.
Rest assured, though: Strasburg's time in big-league camp wasn't wasted.
"I think I've learned a lot," he said. "I'm not too worried about results. Going into this, I wanted to learn. I want to try and get as much information from the coaches and players as I can. That will in turn make me a better ballplayer and in the long run help this team win some ballgames."