SURPRISE, Ariz. — Matt Purke took the mound in Surprise, Ariz., Friday afternoon for his first professional start of record. He’s pitched before professionally, of course, throwing several times in the Nationals’ instructional league in Florida and coming in as a reliever last Saturday, but this, for the highly-touted left-hander, was his first start.
And, after all, that’s what the Nationals drafted him to do.
It did not go well.
Purke faced eight batters, he retired one. The one out he did get was a rocket high and deep to right field — but foul — that Phillies’ right fielder Tyson Gillies ran down and leapt for. He threw 22 pitches — 12 balls, 10 strikes — and fell behind to almost every single batter he faced. He walked one, Kansas City’s Wil Myers, on four pitches and hit another, Atlanta’s Todd Cunningham. His velocity reached 92 once but sat mostly in the 89-91 range and he didn’t seem to have great feel for his breaking stuff.
After six runs had come in — two courtesy of Marlins’ catcher Kyle Skipworth’s home run to dead center field — and Purke was still struggling, surrendering an RBI-single to Texas’ Ryan Strasborger, Scottsdale manager Arnie Beyeler came out to get him. His day was shorter than anyone expected and significantly worse.
In an interview on Thursday, Purke had mentioned that things weren’t entirely where he’d like them to be as he got his work in at the Arizona Fall League. Before the instructional league, he hadn’t faced a batter since his days at Texas Christian University last spring and, as he put it, things weren’t as “sharp” as he’d like them to be.
There weren’t too many scouts in attendance on Friday who would have disagreed with that sentiment. Most seem to agree that what he needs most at this point is innings and experience. Purke’s on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, courtesy of singing a major league deal when he signed this summer, so he’s in the Fall League to build up some innings and knock off some of that rust before he hits major league camp next February and is thrown into the fire.
No, the numbers do not look good (Purke’s final line was 1/3 IP, 7 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 0 K, 1 HR). And there wasn’t a single cheap hit in the bunch. He wasn’t locating well and he didn’t miss too many bats (just one swinging strike and one foul ball in the 22 pitches).
But still, I caution from an overreaction. The biggest issue for Purke right now seems to be that he hasn’t done this in a while. It doesn’t take long for pitchers to accumulate rust, figuratively speaking, and he’s had a long layoff. He’s also pitching up to competition in a league that is known for it’s offense and considered a difficult challenge for pitchers. The numbers here are going to be inflated.
Even if he wasn’t pulled, Purke likely would have thrown no more than three innings — maybe four if his pitch count was impeccably low — and he is not expected to start every time out, piggy backing in relief several times as well. The sample size is going to be too small for the numbers to really mean anything. The experience of being here is what the Nationals want him to get. Even if he gets roughed up, it’s still experience.
Purke has made an impression on the Nationals officials who have spent time with him in his short Nationals tenure. He’s a mature young man and has impressed with his intellectual nature. Basically, they feel he has a good head on his shoulders.
He showed a little of that with a tweet late Friday afternoon about his start. It read: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains Well today it rained and poured and hailed and sleeted and tornadoed… Just got to get out there and do better next time.”