Stephen Strasburg, Tony Gwynn Jr. recognize a special moment

VIERA, Fla. - It’s hard to read anything into spring training lineups when Nationals manager Matt Williams posts them early in the morning before exhibition games. But while quickly looking at Tuesday’s lineup, I recognized that something important was going to happen when the Nats took on the Tigers.

Most are probably thinking I’m talking about the hyped matchup between Nats righty Stephen Strasburg and Detroit ace Justin Verlander - and certainly that was fun, if even only for four innings. But what caught my attention was a couple new teammates with a strong bond over the same man taking the field for the first time together.

strasburg-throws-white.jpgWhen Strasburg took the mound in the top of the first, there was Tony Gwynn Jr. looking over his shoulder some 200 feet away in center field.

“It was a little weird,” said Gwynn “I’m used to seeing him on TV. I know we went to the same school and all that. I’m a few years older than he is. So to actually get behind him and kind of watch how he works. For me as a center fielder, very rarely do you get to play directly behind a pitcher. Because he kind of falls off - that was one of the first things I noticed, I could play a true center field and get directly behind him because I was able to see the bat coming through the zone. Because he’s falling off a little bit. But it was fun watching him do his thing out there. He pitched well out there.”

Gwynn father, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, managed Strasburg at San Diego State. The Nats’ former first overall pick gives a lot of the credit for his success to his former coach. The elder Gwynn taught Strasburg to get more serious early in his college years about many things, including fitness. Strasburg blossomed into one of the most dominant collegiate pitchers of the past half-century.

Tony Gwynn Jr., 32, shares the same hometown and alma mater as Strasburg, with his dad playing for the Padres for all 20 seasons of his major league career. But being six years older, he never had the opportunity to play defense behind the Strasburg until Tuesday afternoon. However, Gwynn quickly remembered a scouting report from a pretty important person.

“Some of the things my dad told me prior to actually getting behind him,” said Gwynn. “How the ball jumps out of his hand and you can see that from the outfield. Balls getting on guys pretty good. I appreciate his maturity on the mound. He got into a little rough patch there where he wasn’t finding the zone. He was able to regroup and get the next couple guys out.”

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Gwynn even sounded like his father toward the end of his comments as he assessed Strasburg’s poise on the mound.

Strasburg is not normally too enthusiastic about postgame media obligations and answering monotonous questions about how is curveball was or how it feels to be part of the world’s greatest rotation. But he lit up when I asked him about sharing the field for the first time with Gwynn.

“It’s pretty special,” he said. “You know, I grew up watching him at San Diego State and his dad was my favorite player. It’s kind of funny how it all comes full circle. I mean, we even worked out at the same gym this offseason for the first time, so to see him in a Nationals uniform was pretty cool. I’ve always been well aware of how he can track out there. Much like Denard (Span), he can go get anything.”

The jury is still out on whether the two will continue to play as teammates when the regular season rolls around. Gwynn, who signed a minor league contract just after spring training began, is making his case so far. He’s batting .417 with a homer, a double and two RBIs in 24 at-bats, while competing for a spot to fill in for Span, who is recovering from abdominal surgery.

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