VIERA, Fla. - When left-hander Matt Purke takes the mound Friday for the Nationals in an exhibition game against Georgetown, he’ll be making his first tentative steps on a path that should land in him in Washington sooner rather than later.
But it’ll be different. There are no scouting reports against an opponent he’s never seen before. He doesn’t even know what a Hoya is. Nor does he really care.
He’s starting for the first time since May, pitching for the first time since the Arizona Fall League in October, and is thrilled that manager Davey Johnson thinks enough of him to have him start a game - any game - in spring training.
“It’s been a couple months (since I’ve thrown), since October, but even then it’s been May since I pitched in an actual game,” said Purke, a third-round pick out of TCU in the June draft. “It’s going to be good to get back into my routine, knowing when I’m going to be pitching. I’m going to be able to go out and perform at the level I expect myself to.”
Scouts have raved about Purke’s makeup, the fact that the bespectacled southpaw went 16-0 as a freshman and fanned 142 batters in 116 1/3 innings, got drafted in the first round by the Rangers in the 2009 draft and turned down a contract offer because of the franchise’s muddled ownership situation. He re-entered the draft in 2011 through a loophole because of his age and the fact that he’d been previously selected and went unsigned.
But it’s not just the devastating 11-to-5 drop on his curveball or the way he positions his beanpole 6-foot-4, 180-lb. frame to hide breaking pitches in his delivery. The Nationals weren’t scared off by his unorthodox mechanics, which may have contributed to shoulder problems which dropped his draft stock. They like his accelerated career path and think he could zoom through the minor leagues to D.C. in rapid fashion. Power left-handers don’t come along every day and the Nationals readily went over-slot to sign him, something that will become more difficult with the new collective bargaining agreement in place.
“A lot of people have big expectations for me, but I’ve got bigger expectations for myself,” Purke said. “I’m probably the hardest grader on myself, but I know how the process works. I’ve got to get my feet wet and put my time in.”
The seven relief appearances he made in the AFL with Scottsdale back in October seem ages ago. So does the Horned Frogs’ trip to the College World Series back in May.
Having Johnson show enough confidence in him to give him a few innings in spring training before the inevitable trip to the manager’s office for news that he’s being sent down constitutes progress for the 21-year-old from Spring, Tex. He’s on the major league roster by virtue of the contract he negotiated and wants to sponge up everything he can in his first spring training.
“I know there’s a lot of guys that have to throw here,” Purke said, alluding to the fact that Johnson has 10 pitchers in camp who have started games in the majors over the past couple of years. “For me to get some innings, and get some starts in, it’ll be good. I’m glad to have the opportunity and I’ll make the most of it when I’m out there.”
A familiar face: When the Nationals open Grapefruit League play Saturday against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., they’ll see a familiar face on the mound in an unfamiliar uniform. Right-hander Livan Hernandez, who signed a minor league deal with the Astros after the Nationals told him there wasn’t room for him on their pitching staff, will start against them.