VIERA, Fla. - Matt Purke sprinted off the mound after freezing Justin Leeson with an inside pitch that went for a called third strike to end the second inning. The left-hander, a third-round pick of the Nationals in June’s draft, thought his day was over. But he’d been so pitch-efficient that he wound up working the third inning and still didn’t reach his 40-pitch limit.
If Purke was nervous in his spring debut, it didn’t show. A guy who should be a senior at TCU dominated college hitters in the Nationals’ 3-0 victory over Georgetown on Friday afternoon, allowing one hit in three innings and striking out three Hoyas. Purke threw 32 pitches, 23 of them for strikes, including all nine of his first-inning offerings.
As impressive as the outing was, Purke’s businesslike demeanor may have made the strongest statement. He was locked in from the start, rarely showed any emotion and just went about his work, demonstrating the poise that scouts have raved about for several years.
“We talked in the bullpen about that, about how relaxed he was,” said catcher Sandy Leon.
Said manager Davey Johnson: “He looked good, great. Great command. Three big league pitches.”
That’s been the book on the lanky lefty for some time, but in his first extended outing since he was a junior at TCU in May, the 21-year-old Purke showed the coolness of a veteran starter, which should make for some interesting internal discussions when the Nationals’ player development staff tries to decide at which minor league level he’ll begin the season.
Adjustments aren’t easy for some young pitchers, particularly in their spring debuts. But when the Hoyas started hacking early, Purke countered their aggressiveness by coming inside to give the hitters something else to think about. He consistently got ahead of hitters and was able to control match-ups for the most part.
“I was able to work ahead and get quick counts,” Purke said. “I threw a lot of four-seamers today. I didn’t throw a lot of sinkers, but the ones I did had pretty good movement and I was able to get a couple of ground balls on one or two of them.”
The velocity, which touched 94-96 mph during one-inning stints in the Arizona Fall League, wasn’t as evident Friday, though Purke clearly had some of the Hoya hitters overmatched.
“It felt good coming out of my hand. I don’t know numbers, but ... it felt like the ball was really getting to the plate quickly,” he said.
The only hit he surrendered came on the second batter of the game, when Georgetown’s Paul Bello ripped a grounder past third base that went for a double. The next eight hitters went down in order before Purke turned a 1-0 lead over to right-hander Rafael Martin.
The Nationals’ bullpen yielded only three singles the rest of the way, with a scoreless ninth inning by non-roster right-hander Jeff Fulchino closing out the whitewashing. Martin struck out four in two innings, righty Waldis Joaquin whiffed three and right-hander Austin Bibens-Dirkx struck out the side in a scoreless eighth.
The hardest ball hit by Georgetown came in the ninth, when Roberto Rodriguez just missed taking off Fulchino’s head with a sharp liner up the middle.