VIERA, Fla. - For his 37th birthday, Mark DeRosa got an unusual present: an opportunity to face hard-throwing right-hander Stephen Strasburg during the first session of live batting practice at Nationals spring training.
Working in a hitting group with Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina, DeRosa was the only person to get a ball cleanly out of the infield, grounding a changeup in the hole between first and second. Other than that, only Ankiel made contact during Strasburg’s 10 minutes on the mound at Field 1.
“He showed me a splitter, or a changeup, or whatever that was,” DeRosa said. “I know there’s a difference there, but his heater’s so hot. It’s got a little jump on it at the end. You almost lose it for a second, coming out of his hand. He’s nasty. I expected nothing less than unhittable stuff. I was proud I put the ball in play.”
Ankiel managed only a humpbacked line drive that floated to the edge of the infield where the shortstop would have been. He quipped that getting a chance to finally hit against live pitching was offset by the fact that he and his group had to face Strasburg and left-hander Gio Gonzalez.
“We’re seeing some live arms out here,” Ankiel said. “It can only get better from there, right?”
Seeing Strasburg from the batter’s perspective for the first time reminded DeRosa of how then-Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis, one of his former teammates on the Braves, suggested DeRosa make sure to watch Strasburg’s major league debut, when he fanned 14 Pirates.
“I remember getting home from a day game in San Fran and watching on a computer,” DeRosa recalled. “It looks like he’s not even trying out there, it’s exploding from his hand. I’m with Rick: I wasn’t excited about getting him and Gio the first day, but I’ve got to think everything else is going to pale in comparison.”
Strasburg appeared especially focused during his first session against live hitters, glaring toward the plate when he missed a little on his location. For the most part, his fastballs delivered a loud thwack into the mitt of catcher Wilson Ramos.
“I have high expectations of myself, especially out there,” Strasburg said. “In games, I’m not going to let it bother me as much because you’ve just got to worry about the next pitch. For me in the bullpen, (I’m) just trying to get my work in, repeat pitches, hit the spots consistently every single time. You can always try to be perfect, but at the same time you’ve got to remember that it’s virtually impossible.”
Gonzalez looked comfortable during his time on the mound and right-hander Craig Stammen drew howls from pitching coach Steve McCatty when a fastball broke the bat of Michael Morse. Jayson Werth screamed, “Ow!” when a pitch from lefty Sean Burnett sawed him off at the hands for a dribbler to first base, but Morse exacted some revenge by crushing a Burnett slider to deep center field off the top of the batter’s eye.
Even though pitchers clued hitters in to what pitch they’d throw, Morse’s poke was easily the most authoritative swing of the day.
“It felt good to actually square one up,” Morse said.