LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It's always nice watching a young player begin to grow in front of our eyes, to evolve from a guy getting by on talent to one who starts to really get it.
We saw a bit of that with Stephen Strasburg tonight; but we didn't see it until the Nationals starter's jersey was off and he had large bags of ice taped to various parts of his right arm.
Strasburg's line tonight wasn't pretty. He went four innings against the Braves, and allowed four runs on five hits with two walks and a strikeout. The righty gave up two home runs, both on fastballs right down the middle.
But after the outing, we didn't just hear Strasburg talk about how he needs to spot his fastball better or mix in his breaking stuff more effectively. We saw one of the top young pitchers in baseball start to understand why his mistakes are getting in the way of him becoming even better.
Strasburg - now 23 - was asked about the first home run he gave up tonight, when he tried to throw a fastball past Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, a guy Strasburg knows is a dead-red fastball hitter. Before the reporter could even finish his question, Strasburg cut in.
"That is immaturity, yes," he said, smiling, but completely serious. "That's not what the best pitchers in the game do. That's something that I'm going to have to learn as time goes on, and as I get more experience, I'm going to learn that when I'm out there in the heat of battle, to not necessarily think, 'OK, I'm going to rear back and throw this by him.' "
It's perfectly OK - and necessary, even - for a pitcher to feel that way some of the time. At this level, guys need to have faith in their abilities, even to the point of cockiness. They need to believe that their best can beat the opponent's best.
But Strasburg is starting to realize that isn't a healthy mentality to have on every single pitch.
"You've got to believe in your stuff and you can't shy away from hitters, and I'm going to continue to do that," Strasburg said. "But right now, it's more: I need to take a step back and focus on trying to become a better pitcher and not just a thrower.
"I'm never going to go out there and not compete, but there's times to rear back, and there's times to take a little bit off. I think that's the thing that with time, I'm going to learn. You saw it with (Justin) Verlander last year - he wasn't throwing 100 (mph) every pitch. That's something I've got to remember. The best pitchers in the game don't go out there and throw."
That's an incredibly mature statement coming from a guy with just 17 games of major league experience. And that's a large part of the reason - along with his immense talent - why the Nats believe Strasburg can be special.
While Strasburg is starting to learn that he needs to harness his "A-plus" stuff for specific pitches and situations, he's also starting to learn that he needs to pitch differently in spring training. The righty knows that his spring numbers - eight earned runs and 11 hits in 9 2/3 innings pitched - don't mean anything, but even including tonight's performance, that hasn't stopped him from trying to throw a no-hitter every time out, something which irritates his manager.
"It's too early; we're not in the regular season," Davey Johnson said. "(He should be) building arm strength, hitting your spots, working on your rhythm."
"That's one thing I'm fighting myself with a little bit, is I expect myself every single time to go out there and throw up zeros," Strasburg said. "That's the expectation I have for myself. But it's my third outing in spring. That's one thing that being a professional and having more experience, you've got to remember that it is spring training and the way you're going to go out there and pitch later in the year is a lot different than what you're trying to do out there right now."
Most importantly, Strasburg feels completely healthy now, entering his first full season after Tommy John surgery. He said his arm feels strong (so strong that he often overthrows) and he isn't nearly as sore the day after a start as he was last year.
But if health is No. 1 on the list of important things to take out of spring, No. 2 is that Strasburg is growing as a pitcher. His numbers this spring don't necessarily show it, but he's starting to learn what it will take to become an elite hurler and not just a guy that can hit triple-digits on a radar gun.
"Just knowing the type of pitcher I am, once it clicks, it's there," Strasburg said. "I'm still trying to find it, and it's going in the right direction."
It sure is.