Sunday, February 21, 2010

That's one small step for Strasburg, one giant leap for the Nationals

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VIERA, Fla. -- It lasted all of nine minutes and consisted of 37 pitches. A casual observer who happened to wander over to the row of bullpen mounds near the Nationals' four practice fields might very well have paid no attention to the tall right-hander lined up in between teammates Matt Chico, Tyler Walker, Aaron Thompson and Joel Peralta, uncorking fastballs and breaking balls and change-ups with relative ease.

As the 21-year-old pitcher would describe it later: "Short and sweet."

And yet there was no more significant development on the first day of formal workouts at Nats camp than that nine-minute bullpen session by Stephen Strasburg. To the naked eye, it may not have looked like much. But to the Nats and their success-craving fan base, it was the first tangible sign that better days may not be so far away.

Strasburg's spring training debut drew a larger-than-normal crowd, perhaps 150 or so fans, not to mention a pack of reporters and photographers who chronicled his every move. It also drew rave reviews from the young man who caught each of those 37 pitches, Derek Norris, Washington's top catching prospect who had worked with Strasburg a few times last September in the Florida instructional league but hadn't seen him in person since.

"He's really progressed over the offseason," Norris said. "One thing that stuck out in my mind was his two-seam fastball. His sinker has a lot more action than it did about a month ago. It's just incredible. It's almost like a lefty's slider."

Just another sign of Strasburg's pitching aptitude. He's not just a thrower. He's a pitcher, one who soaks up as much knowledge as he can and is never content to just rely on his athletic ability.

"It's a part of being a pitcher," he said. "You have to change every little thing to keep a hitter off-balance. With a wood bat, if you can locate a good two-seam fastball, you can get it right in on their hands all day. If you can learn to command it, it's another pitch in your repertoire. Obviously you want to throw four-seam, two-seam. You've got to be able to show a hitter different looks, keep them off-balance."

This is what distinguishes Strasburg from many other pitching phenoms who arrive on the scene with plenty of fanfare but quickly fizzle out upon realizing they can't just blow away big-league hitters with their "plus" stuff. He showed signs of that mental awareness last October in the Arizona Fall League, when after getting shelled in his second outing for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, he immediately went to pitching coach Paul Menhart and sought advice on what went wrong and how he could fix it. Five days later, Strasburg returned to the mound and carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning.

"His questions are pretty high-level questions," said Menhart, who also serves as pitching coach at Class A Potomac. "It's a joy to talk to him. He wants to learn so much so quickly. He's a sponge. He wants it all, and he wants it now."

Nationals fans who want Strasburg now will probably have to wait a little while to get him. Confirming what most have suspected for some time, manager Jim Riggleman said the rookie pitcher is almost certain to open the season in the minor leagues.

"I think we're open-minded," Riggleman said. "Everybody's performances will determine where they end up. He could pitch real well down here. But we still may feel like the development ... that the process is to be respected of going through the system and getting him really used to the rigors of throwing every day in games."

Strasburg insists he has no problem commencing his professional career in the less-pressurized locales of Woodbridge or Harrisburg. "Not at all," he said. "They have a plan for me, and I trust that they're going to handle me the right way."

But make no mistake. The former San Diego State stud wants to pitch in the majors this year. If nothing else, he wants to make the kind of impression on the Nationals that's impossible to forget by the time camp breaks six weeks from now.

How much opportunity will Strasburg get this spring? Maybe not as much as he'd like. With as many as nine other starters legitimately battling for three open rotation spots, he could find it tough to get many innings in Grapefruit League action. Camp observers are already wondering whether he could be among the first round of cuts in early March, with the club insisting he'd be better off getting more innings of work in minor-league camp.

Whether he pitches in Space Coast Stadium against Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran and Magglio Ordonez or on a distant minor-league field against unknown faces, Strasburg will remain the center of attention all spring. Autograph hounds were all over him this morning, before, during and after the workout. He had to politely remind people he was in the middle of his work day and couldn't exactly stop to sign and pose for pictures while trotting from one field to another.

But Strasburg seems to have become more at-ease with his popularity. When he first signed last August, he could come across as aloof and not at all interested in dealing with fans or media. He made some significant strides in that department during the fall in Arizona, though, and the progression has continued here this spring.

"It goes with the territory of being an overall No. 1 pick," he said. "You've just got to learn to accept it and put on your smile."

Lofty expectations also are a part of being the nation's top amateur player, and Strasburg knows this as well. He knows the history of top draft picks who never amounted to anything other than footnotes, so he's not taking anything for granted.

"Being the No. 1 pick in the draft doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be successful at the major-league level," he said. "All these guys here have been successful and are successful. So you really just want to learn from them as much as you can. It's just like college. I'm an incoming freshman again, and I've got to learn from the veterans."

The most-hyped pitcher in draft history, showing humility? Yet another reason to believe Steven Strasburg is indeed the real deal.


Andrew said...

When he talked in the interview about pitching repertoire, I said to myself, this is one of those kids like Ryan Zimmerman who is mature beyond his years.

Mark, your audio feeds are amazing as well as your Posts!

Andrew said...

Stephen Strasburg said, "It's a part of being a pitcher. You have to change every little thing to keep a hitter off balance. With a wood bat, if you can locate a good two-seam fastball, you can get right in on their hands all day. If you can learn to command it, it's another pitch in your repertoire. So, obviously, you want to throw a four-seam, two-seam. You've just got to show a hitter all these different looks and keep them off-balance."

David Uglow said...

Mark, I've probably looking right past the link, but where do we find the audio feed?

natsfan1a said...

David, the audio files are sent to those who made subscription payments during the period from the blog's start-up until the February 17 cutoff date. You can find details via the Send Mark to Spring Training link in the blog archive (see right side of this page).

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