WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The rules were loosely defined, there were no umpires and players from both sides were wearing the same white uniforms, but the Nationals’ intrasquad game today nonetheless offered an opportunity for everyone to progress beyond the simple workouts that had previously constituted spring training.
The game, really more of a glorified scrimmage, lasted seven innings. None of the regular position players participated, but Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark started on the mound for the dueling teams, and several others who are competing for spots on the opening day saw action.
“It was necessary for the pitchers,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We usually would have done it (Friday), the day before you start the (official) games. But we decided to do it, get our pitching lined up. And in case something happened, we wanted to get the soreness out before we started playing. ... The guys looked pretty good. As usual, the pitchers were ahead of the position players. The thing that I was impressed with was how our pitchers threw strikes. That’s the thing you want to see at this time of year.”
Perhaps nobody was better at that than Roark, who cruised through his two scoreless innings of work. The lone blemishes: an infield single by top prospect Victor Robles and a walk to Matt Skole. Roark, though, retired the side in his second inning, striking out Neftali Soto and Grant Green.
“And I still felt like I can do more,” the right-hander said. “Been throwing a lot earlier this year since (I’m pitching in the World Baseball Classic), so that was good. And it feels good. Body feels good, arm feels great. Like I said, I feel like I could go longer.”
Strasburg wasn’t as sharp as Roark, needing 23 pitches to face only four batters before pitching coach Mike Maddux called the bottom of the first to an end before three outs were recorded. Strasburg wasn’t particularly helped by his defense, though: Two errors (one by second baseman Corban Joseph, one by catcher Jhonatan Solano) set the stage for Brian Goodwin’s bloop RBI single to right.
Strasburg also pitched exclusively out of the stretch, which Maddux said was done so his delivery to the plate would be quicker. Regardless of the results, the pitching coach had one major takeaway from the outing.
“I was happy with what I saw, and that was seeing Stras on the bump,” Maddux said. “A little rusty, but the stuff was there. Threw some nice curveballs. Changeup was first-game-of-spring-training type. It wasn’t the one he’s accustomed to throwing. But it was good to see him out there. That was the big bonus for me, that Stras went out there and competed well and held his pitch count down.”
This was the first time Strasburg pitched in a game-like situation since he walked off the mound Sept. 7 after suffering a partial tear of the pronator tendon in his elbow. The right-hander has talked about trying to make some adjustments to his between-starts regimen this year in an attempt to keep him fresher through the end of the season, and that process has already begun; he took two days off before pitching today instead of the traditional one day.
All of this is designed to maximize Strasburg’s contributions, which Maddux believes can be immense.
“You know what? Last year he started off 14-0,” the pitching coach said. “World beater. He’s capable of that. You can’t get better than what he was doing. How many players have had that run? Not many. He’s got plus talent. He’s capable of that. He’s capable of doing things that other people can’t.”
Maddux also liked what he saw from Koda Glover, who retired the side during his one inning of relief and also made a nice play on a bunt to his right. The rookie right-hander ended last season with a partially torn labrum in his right hip, but there has been no evidence of any lingering problems this spring.
“Not at all,” Maddux said. “Looked good.”
The Nationals have worked with Glover to elevate his release point, trying to take advantage of his large frame.
“He’s 6-foot-5,” Maddux said. “Let’s pitch like you’re 6-foot-5. Pitch tall. When he joined us last year, he had a lower profile to his delivery. We’re trying to add a little higher profile.”
This was the lone intrasquad game the Nationals will hold this spring. They’re scheduled to conduct a light workout Friday, then open Grapefruit League play Saturday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. Gio González will start that game, with Jeremy Guthrie and Joe Nathan among the relievers to follow. A.J. Cole will start Sunday’s game against the Twins in Fort Myers, with Vance Worley, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth among the relievers making the trip.
Meanwhile, Max Scherzer is slated to throw off a bullpen mound Saturday for the first time this spring, further evidence the stress fracture in his right ring finger is healing.
If everything progresses as planned, Scherzer will build up from bullpen sessions to facing live hitters to pitching in a game within a couple of weeks. With spring training expanded this year to account for the WBC, the club doesn’t feel it needs to rush Scherzer back.
“We do have the extra week this year to pace ourselves, needless to say,” Maddux said. “So Max, if all goes well, he’ll be maybe a start or two behind the other guys.”