WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals and Mets faced each other today in West Palm Beach, and they’ll face each other again Sunday in Port St. Lucie. More importantly, they’ll face each other six times in the season’s first two weeks, dates that are rapidly approaching.
It’s not uncommon in that scenario for starting pitchers to elect not to take the mound for these final spring tuneups against the same lineup they’ll be going up against for real in a matter of days. And indeed the Mets’ top two starters, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, chose to skip these outings against the Nationals and instead get their work in on a back field against minor leaguers.
Stephen Strasburg had the option to do likewise. He was lined up to make his penultimate start of the spring today, and he’s going to start the season’s second game March 30 against the Mets on South Capitol Street. So few would have faulted the veteran right-hander had he asked out of today’s assignment, for fear of giving the opposition some kind of edge heading into the regular season.
He didn’t. He wanted to pitch today against big leaguers.
“I mean, I’m the longest-tenured pitcher in the NL East,” Strasburg said with a smirk. “What’s another start against the Mets?”
Fair enough. (And by the way, how crazy is it that Strasburg is the longest-tenured pitcher in the National League East, having debuted one year before the next-closest competitor: Atlanta’s Julio Teheran?)
This actually continues a spring-long theme for the Nationals, who have seen Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin each take 2 1/2-hour road trips for exhibition starts and only one member of their projected rotation skip an outing (Aníbal Sánchez, who chose to face minor leaguers last week).
“Speaking for our guys, they want to face big league hitters,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s what they want. They’re trying to get ready for opening day and facing big league hitters. They want to go out there and face them, regardless, and they’re working on stuff. I never have to ask them what they want to do. I know what they want to do, and it’s kind of nice.”
Strasburg pitched well today against a Mets lineup that included nearly every healthy regular except for catcher Wilson Ramos. He retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, and though he faded a bit late when he surrendered a two-run homer to Conforto and an RBI single to Brandon Nimmo, he finished having thrown 84 pitches in five-plus innings with six strikeouts.
Next up for Strasburg: a final exhibition start Saturday against the Cardinals. Then it all starts counting for real, with 11 straight games against the Mets and Phillies to open the schedule.
“It’s going to be exciting to get back up to D.C. fairly shortly and get the season started,” he said. “But again, it’s the first series of many. So I think it’s important for us to play good baseball from the start, but at the same time it’s about peaking at the right time, as well.”
* Juan Soto had yet another Juan Soto-esque day at the plate. He belted a two-run homer off left-hander Hector Santiago in the first innings, then he doubled in both the fourth and sixth innings.
But the 20-year-old outfielder couldn’t completely get over the one out he made, when he grounded to third in the bottom of the second and was called out on a bang-bang play at first. Soto jokingly put his hands on his ears as if to signal to the dugout he thought the play should be reviewed. (Note: There are no replay reviews in spring training.)
Soto clearly thought he was safe and should’ve been credited with another hit.
“Yeah,” he said. “In my mind, it’s 4-for-4.”
Not that the one groundout did much to halt Soto’s torrid pace at the plate. He has now homered in three of his last four games. And for the spring, he’s now sporting a ridiculous .400/.488/.800 offensive slash line.
“I feel really comfortable at the plate,” he said. “I’m seeing the ball really well, better than when I got here. I’m almost ready.”
* Michael A. Taylor offered up some unexpectedly positive news during the game when he tweeted that he was “Thankful for the good news on my MRI!! Feeling good about hitting, throwing and running (in the pool) today.”
Taylor, who sprained his left knee and hip making a diving catch Thursday in Fort Myers, indeed was able to take some light, one-handed swings off a tee, play light catch from 90 feet and jog in the conditioning pool at the Nationals complex.
“It’s a good sign,” Martinez said. “But it’s a progression. We’ll see how he comes back and feels tomorrow. But for us that’s a good thing, that he’s feeling that good.”
Taylor’s reference to the “good news” on his MRI was only a reaction to the initial test he took Friday to diagnose the two sprains. He hasn’t had any follow-up MRIs yet.