Associated Press photo
Stephen Strasburg was charged with two runs over 2 2/3 innings.
When Strasburg stepped to the mound at Space Coast Stadium shortly after 1 p.m. today, it marked only the fourth Grapefruit League start of his career. How quickly we forget his first spring with the Nationals (as a rookie in 2010) lasted a mere three outings and nine total innings before he was optioned to Class AA Harrisburg. And, of course, he never pitched in a game last spring while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
So it's hard to fault Strasburg for being something less than his usual spectacular self during his first appearance of 2012.
"Stras was too hyped up, too amped up," manager Davey Johnson said. "You could tell from the first pitch he threw, too. He was loaded for bear."
The end result was far from terrible: Two runs allowed over 2 2/3 innings. But, perfectionist as he is, Strasburg wasn't completely satisfied with his performance.
"I knew the first time out, I'd be amped up," he said. "As much as you try and prevent that from happening, it still happens.
There were still more positives than negatives for Strasburg, who retired seven of the first eight Astros batters he faced, kept his pitch count relatively low and wound up striking out three before departing with two outs in the third and his pitch total up to 44.
Most importantly, the 23-year-old emerged with his right arm not only feeling strong, but feeling strong enough to keep going well beyond his limit for March 4.
"I think the biggest thing I noticed was it was very easy for me to go out there and go into the third inning," he said. "My arm felt like it could've gone at least two more."
Strasburg's biggest mistake came in the top of the third, when he tried to get a couple of curveballs past Chris Snyder but missed the zone and wound up falling behind in the count 3-1. His next pitch to the Houston catcher: a fastball right down the middle.
"I was like: Here, hit it," Strasburg said. "If you want to dip out there like that, go ahead."
Snyder did stick his bat out and poked the ball down the left-field line, well over the fence for a solo homer, one of only eight Strasburg has allowed in 101 total innings pitched while wearing a Nationals uniform.
Perhaps unnerved a bit by the home run, Strasburg immediately surrendered a double to Jordan Schafer, then uncorked a wild pitch. He battled back, though, and struck out shortstop Marwin Gonzalez to end his afternoon.
Thus concluded the first step of Strasburg's march toward a potential Opening Day start against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Johnson said he won't make that announcement until sometime next week, but his young ace is clearly the frontrunner to hold the honor.
An April 5 start at the Friendly Confines is the last thing on Strasburg's mind right now. With a better understanding now of the slow-and-steady nature of spring training -- as opposed to his first camp two years ago -- he measures progress five days at a time.
The goal: Peak just as camp concludes, not as it opens.
"I think that was the one thing I did my first year," he said. "I was so used to being ready to go in February in college, it was almost like the first day of spring training, before we played a game, I was ready for the season. This year going into it, I knew we still had another six weeks. I'm just really focused on trying to build and still get stronger, so I'm peaking at the end of the year and not necessarily in the middle and then playing survival mode the rest of the time."
Between now and then, Strasburg will try both to build up his stamina and refine his command, particularly the breaking ball that wasn't always there for him today.
Not that anyone was surprised the young hurler was less-than-perfect the first time he took the mound in 2012.
"Especially the year Stras has been through, with his physical ability, it's kind of hard to throttle down," Johnson said. And he's real hard on himself. But it's fun watching him, even when he's amped up and overthrowing."