Harper arrives, Purke returning to form after injury

VIERA, Fla. - Bryce Harper and Jeff Kobernus walked into the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium a little before 9 a.m., which leaves Jayson Werth as the only member of the Nationals’ 40-man roster who I have yet to spot at camp.

Harper dished out hugs to teammates and then started unpacking his things as he grabbed a seat in front of his locker. We’ll see whether he decides to hang around today and get in some BP on the main field sometime around noon.

I mentioned that left-hander Sammy Solis had a strong bullpen session yesterday, but he wasn’t the only up-and-coming southpaw who impressed Nationals coaches and onlookers.

Matt Purke is back healthy this spring, and the 23-year-old lefty, who the Nats selected in the third round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, looked sharp yesterday, slinging fastballs on the corners and showing off an impressive changeup.

For Purke, who has battled shoulder issues for much of the last few years and made just three professional starts during the 2012 season before needing to be shut down again, it’s nice to be able to come to spring training and let the ball loose this time around. He’s finally fully healthy, and is getting a chance to show the Nats brass what he can do.

“This is really like my first opportunity to be able to do everything and not feel problems or pain or anything and be held back. So it definitely took a while, but I’m finally here,” Purke said. “I’m in a lot better shape, my arm feels a lot better. I’m a lot stronger. Just healthy and ready to go.”

After a dynamite freshman season at TCU in 2010, in which he went 16-0 with 142 strikeouts and 34 walks in 116 1/3 innings, Purke started dealing with shoulder problems. He only made 11 starts in 2011, but still had a solid sophomore season pitching through injury, and the Nats opted to take a chance on him with the 96th overall pick when the lefty fell to them.

Purke needed surgery on the shoulder in 2012, however, costing him nearly that entire season, and was limited in the spring of 2013. But he returned to post a 3.80 ERA in 18 starts between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac last season, throwing 90 innings in the process.

“I needed it,” Purke said, when asked about last season. “It was kind of one of those things where you’ve been waiting to get back out there for so long and I knew that there was going to be bumps in the road and stuff like that. But just to be able to go out, make all my starts, not miss one, was a goal of mine to do. And I was able to do that. So I felt like it was a successful year just because I didn’t miss a single start and I didn’t have any relapses.

“I felt that there were glimpses of (the old me) in there. As I got further in the year, it started to become more consistent than in the beginning, but I definitely saw times where I had glimpses of the stuff that I have and what I can throw. It was just about trying to put it together and consistently do it. And I think towards the end of the year and then in the (Arizona) Fall League, I was able to string together some good starts. Just now ready to do it again.”

Purke started the Arizona Fall League campaign strong, allowing just three hits, three walks and striking out 12 over 12 scoreless innings. He ended up posting a 3.91 ERA in 23 total innings in Arizona, helping to build up his arm and, he hopes, give him a strong base he can add to this year.

While getting over the mental hurdle that comes along with returning to the field after injury was a process, Purke says he feels confident in himself physically. His stuff is starting to return, as well. Purke spent much of the offseason working on improving his curveball, but he likes where his two-seam fastball is at, and he says he had a good feel for the changeup last season.

Purke might not have the same mid-90s fastball that he did back at TCU before the shoulder injuries and the strikeout-to-walk numbers weren’t super-impressive last season, leading many scouting publications to drop Purke from their list of top 10 Nats prospects entirely. The velocity doesn’t worry Purke, however (“My job is to get outs, not to throw 100,” he says), and he feels that as long as he’s healthy, he’ll get back to form.

“I’m just trying to command my pitches all in the zone and do it on a consistent basis, and have a good spring to launch me into the season,” Purke said. “Go out there and compete. The biggest thing is I’m ready to be back competing with everybody, and see what I can do.”

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