VIERA, Fla. - As soon as the ball came off Prince Fielder’s bat in the fourth inning, Stephen Strasburg immediately knew two things: The screamer was coming right at him, and he had a shot to catch it.
The ball hit him, and he didn’t snag it. And as it caromed into short center field for a single, all eyes turned to the mound as Nationals personnel descended upon the ace to make sure he was OK.
It was the kind of reaction play that can either be a pitcher’s best friend or worst enemy. Catch the ball and you turn a hit up the middle into an out; have it hit you, particularly on the bare hand, which is often the first inclination, and injury can ensue.
Luckily for Strasburg, the ball struck his glove hand, just above the strap of his mitt on the fleshy pad of the palm beneath the thumb. Almost two hours later, he still had the imprint of a stitch on the spot, but no serious repercussions.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It just kind of numbed up a little bit out there. It’s a little tender, but nothing crazy.”
And his first thought when he saw the sphere whizzing toward him?
“You’ve got the adrenaline pumping. I thought I could have caught it,” Strasburg said. “It just took a while for it to sink in that it hit me. It got numb and just shook it out. ... I saw the ball. I thought my glove was there. It was just a little off.”
From the dugout, manager Davey Johnson saw the shot up the middle, knew it hit his ace and hoped for good news.
“I knew it hit him on the glove hand, and that he was shaking that hand,” Johnson said. “That was a bullet, no doubt about it. ... It was a scare.”
Fielder’s shot off Strasburg’s left hand rendered his performance for the day a spring training footnote. He escaped injury, which was certainly more important than allowing three runs on seven hits over six innings, with a walk and five strikeouts. When your opening day starter escapes an injury that could wreck those plans, seeing him in the clubhouse without an ice pack, splint or bandage takes on more importance.
“I thought I pitched pretty well,” Strasburg said. “Got weak contact and that’s the story of it. They just singled me to death besides the early homer. That’s baseball.”
The home run came in the second inning, a blast to right field off the bat of Matt Tuisosopo. The rest of the hits weren’t too damaging, except that bunched he three of them around a walk in a two-run fifth. That inning, Strasburg seemed to struggle with his command, but he rebounded with a 1-2-3 sixth.
Strasburg threw 89 pitches, 59 for strikes, and is on target for 100 pitches in his final spring start.
Johnson said that outing would probably come against minor leaguers on March 27, instead of having Strasburg pitch in one of the split-squad games that day - at Space Coast Stadium against the Braves or in Jupiter versus the Cardinals.
Against the Tigers, Strasburg threw more curveballs, especially on his first pitch of at-bats. That was by design, since aggressive teams tend to tee off when they’re offered a first-pitch fastball. The curve helped Strasburg keep opposing hitters off-balance.
“There’s going to be times where there’s guys out there where you can throw it in there and, ‘Go ahead take your best swing,’ ” he said. “You don’t even care if they know it’s coming. Then there’s guys like Prince. He’ll square up a fastball, so you have to go out there and give him some different looks.”
Now that he’s going deeper into games, Strasburg is focusing more on the cat-and-mouse game of sequencing pitches, making sure he doesn’t repeat the same series of offerings multiple times through the lineup. It’s something at which he excels, one of the mental aspects of the game that sets him apart from other pitchers.
“Just sticking to my game plan and not veering off that, as much as you think they’ll try to go in there and work the count and see a lot of pitches,” he explained. “They’re just not changing that. They’re up there hacking because they don’t want to see my off-speed. There’s guys where you have to blow them away and make them hit your fastball, and there’s guys you have to be a little more conservative with and a little smarter with.”
Heading into his final spring start - and with his April 1 opening day assignment against the Marlins at Nationals Park looming - how satisfied is Strasburg with his progression and performance this spring?
“My stamina’s there. I think I felt as strong and as loose as I was in the first inning in the sixth,” he said. “I definitely could have gone back out there for at least the rest of the game, to be honest.”
Those weak hits won’t be remembered any longer than most spring training outings.
“You can sit there and get frustrated and stuff, but I’d much rather it happen now than when it counts,” he said.