WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Ever the routine-oriented pragmatist, Stephen Strasburg found both good and bad in his first Grapefruit League start - and he took both in stride.
The good: He retired the first four batters he faced in order, striking out three of them.
The bad: The next four batters reached base, and Vidal Bruján’s two-run double to center gave the Rays a 3-1 lead in the second inning en route to an 8-1 victory.
Strasburg wasn’t able to escape the second frame, manager Davey Martinez calling for Paolo Espino after the right-hander had thrown 35 pitches, 22 for strikes.
“His fastball was coming out,” Martinez said of Strasburg. “His breaking balls were pretty good, changeup was good. Fighting his mechanics a little bit, but that’s why we have spring training.”
Though he hadn’t pitched since winning Game 6 of the World Series, Strasburg took the uneven effort in stride, confident that he has plenty to work on before he takes the hill again next week.
“I think the last time I was in a competitive setting, it was a pretty big situation,” he said. “You try not to think about how you’re feeling out there, but it didn’t really have the same rush of adrenaline as the last start. You just kinda roll with what you’ve got.”
What he had was an unfamiliar opponent with a lineup filled with minor leaguers, including the game’s top prospect, shortstop Wander Franco, who led off for the Rays.
“You kinda go into the dark a little bit,” said Strasburg, who yielded three runs on three hits with a walk, three strikeouts and a wild pitch. “You don’t have any kind of a scouting report, so it’s moreso trying to pitch to execution and trying to mix in what you can. I think the biggest thing is, for me, off-speed being consistent with that and building that up. And then the fastball kinda plays off of that.”
For the first inning and the first batter of the second, that strategy worked to plan. Then Kevan Smith ripped a one-out single to right in the second, Randy Arozarena walked, Mike Brousseau shot a run-scoring single to right and Bruján doubled home a pair.
But a guy in tune with his mechanics saw the adjustment he needs to make to avoid a repeat.
“I just felt like I was having a tough time loading up on the back side,” he said. “I was being too quick. My hips were kinda getting out in front too early. It wasn’t really right.”
Martinez wasn’t surprised that Strasburg quickly diagnosed what went wrong.
“I figured he’d get back in here and watch videos,” the manager said. “He’ll be working on stuff starting tomorrow. ... We’ll build him up again in five days and we’ll see where he’s at.”
In his next turn, Strasburg will bump up to three innings and 50 pitches.
“Luckily, I have the luxury to take my time early on in camp and know it’s a long season,” he said. “Before, for a lot of guys, you’re ready to go from Day One ‘cause you’re fighting for a job. ... The biggest thing I wanted to see today was the stuff being there - and it was. Now it’s just about fine-tuning everything and sharpening up a little bit. But that’s just something I’ve grown accustomed to over the years and it seems like it’s you kind of get the adrenaline going again and then you settle down again. It’s getting the rep and getting out there a few more times and building off it.”
And that routine that Strasburg has become so married to?
“I don’t think it really changes. Over the years, I’ve just found that if I’m patient and I just trust my stuff and trust the process. When I was younger, it’s easy to go and try and pound away and fix something immediately. Then it’s kind of like the same thing every year. Come out to spring training, get that little bit of adrenaline and just flying open. Because that’s just how it is. I’ve just learned to accept that and kinda let it take its course.”