For Strasburg, a major step in the right direction

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The Nationals were shut out and only registered five hits in tonight’s 2-0 loss to the Mets, but that means nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Much more important was the strong outing turned in by Stephen Strasburg, who took a major step forward in his spring development tonight, throwing five innings, allowing just one run on two hits, striking out three and working his pitch count up to 85.

It was by far the best start of Strasburg’s spring. After allowing eight earned runs over his first three starts (spanning 9 2/3 innings), the Nats right-hander took manager Davey Johnson’s advice and focused on not overthrowing. The result was an increase in foul balls by Mets hitters, but a decrease in balls that were hit hard.

“(Not overthrowing is) something that I went into the game wanting to work on, among other things,” Strasburg said. “It’s all about locating. I feel like I made a lot more quality pitches down in the zone. It’s a good adjustment and (I’m) just moving on from here.”

Ever the perfectionist, Strasburg said he wanted to be deeper into the game when he hit his 85-pitch limit, but the Nats will be pleased with five innings and the fact that Strasburg still felt strong when he left the game. Given that the righty hasn’t thrown this many pitches in a single start since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, tonight represented a milestone of sorts.

“He was hitting it in the fairway today, instead of hitting it 400 yards in the rough. He was right down the middle,” Johnson said. “He had much better command. Didn’t overthrow. Threw some quality pitches. Had a better feel late in the game of the breaking ball. Stayed within himself and pitched. That’s what I wanted to see, and I saw it.”

Strasburg had a bit of a scare in the second inning, when Mets catcher Josh Thole’s bat splintered and the barrel went flying toward the mound. Strasburg avoiding the bat, scooped up Thole’s grounder and gunned him out at first.

“I didn’t really flinch for some reason,” Strasburg said. “I was so locked in. I saw the ball first and I saw the barrel flying, but I didn’t really think about getting hit by it. ... Even if I got smoked by the bat, it would suck, it would hurt, but I wasn’t going to let the ball get by me.”

Add that to the list of reasons why Strasburg is a major league pitcher and I’m a sports writer.

Johnson said Strasburg will be eased back a little bit in his next start, going around 80 pitches with a max of 90.

“He’s a competitor,” Johnson said. “I saw what I wanted to see from him. He’s right where he needs to be.”

Meanwhile, Ian Desmond now has 38 plate appearances this spring, and he’s finally in the walk column. He earned his first free pass of spring in the sixth inning tonight.

Rick Ankiel went 1-for-2 with a single in his first game back after missing the last week and a half with a quad injury, while reliever Craig Stammen lowered his spring ERA to 2.08 with a perfect eighth inning.

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