Strasburg strong in return, Robles departs with tight back

Stephen Strasburg’s return from a strained left calf didn’t come in an official game, but that’s about the only detail of today’s outing that was less than ideal.

Pitching in a simulated game against teammates prior to the Nationals’ Grapefruit League contest versus the Astros, Strasburg went five innings and threw 74 pitches, according to information provided by the club.

Both numbers represented a step up from what manager Davey Martinez said he was expecting going into the simulated game (four innings and 60 pitches), suggesting Strasburg felt particularly good and didn’t need to end his outing earlier.

“He looked good,” Martinez said during tonight’s Zoom session with reporters. “Nothing that indicated his calf was bothering him. He felt strong. He got tired at the end a little bit, but he got through it.”

The competition came in the form of four teammates trying to make the big league roster: Jordy Mercer, Hernán Pérez, Tres Barrera and Luis García. Veteran catcher Alex Avila was behind the plate, serving as Strasburg’s batterymate.

The start came five days after Strasburg had to walk off the mound during the third inning against Houston upon landing awkwardly on his left leg while delivering his 45th pitch of the afternoon. The fact he was able to retake the mound on normal rest and apparently experience no lingering issues of the injury bodes well for his chances of being ready for opening day.

“Absolutely,” Martinez said prior to Strasburg’s outing. “Up until this calf stint, he was doing awesome. He felt good, arm felt good. Hopefully, we’ll get him through this today, and he feels good tomorrow and then we’ll get him back into the rotation.”

Strasburg, who declined a request to speak to reporters, could potentially make two more Grapefruit League starts (March 24 and 29, both against the Astros) and then start the second game of the season (April 3 versus the Mets) on normal rest.

Robles-Leaves-With-Trainer-Red-Sidebar.jpgTonight’s official game - a 10-9 come-from-behind win over Houston - saw a continuation of Josh Bell and Victor Robles’ hot springs at the plate, but it also saw Robles depart with back tightness in the bottom of the fifth. After making a play on Carlos Correa’s single to center field and throwing to the plate, Robles got a visit from Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard, then walked off the field under his own power.

“He actually did it before the throw; he kind of slipped a little bit when he went to go throw the ball,” Martinez said. “We saw him go backwards a little bit. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. It was precautionary (that) we took him out.”

The seemingly minor injury came after another impressive offensive night for Robles, who doubled, homered and scored two runs. and now sports a .313/.405/.688 with three doubles, three homers and four stolen bases. Getting a chance to bat leadoff every time he’s played, the young outfielder has made a strong case to hold that job when the season commences.

“The biggest thing for me is, he’s limiting his chase (of pitches out of the zone),” Martinez said. “He’s getting the ball in the strike zone, and he’s staying on the ball and hitting it hard. His two-strike approach is getting better, which is good. So far, I like everything he’s done. He’s taken his work into the games, which is really, really nice.”

Bell, meanwhile, hit another towering home run - his fourth of the spring, this one a three-run blast - and also doubled and walked. The newly acquired first baseman is now batting .367/.444/.900 with four doubles, four homers and nine RBIs.

“Generally in spring training, I’ve been lost in the past,” Bell said. “This has been the best spring I’ve come into. I just think having no pressure coming into this lineup has really helped me a ton.”

Bell, acquired in December, admits he’s far more relaxed this spring than he ever was with the Pirates. Why? Because of all the talent that surrounds him in Nats camp.

“I would say atmosphere as a whole, and then the lineup, too,” he said. “Just watching (Juan) Soto hit, I’m like: ‘OK, we’re good. We’re good to go.’ “

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