Stephen Strasburg found himself in something of a jam Monday night. No outs, the bases loaded and the most accomplished hitter in the Houston Astros lineup, Carlos Lee, at the plate. Lee connected with a 1-0 fastball from Strasburg and skied it into center field. On third, Astros speedy leadoff man Jordan Schafer prepared to tag up.
Then Washington Nationals center fielder Rick Ankiel fielded the ball and unleashed his left arm (link to video). The ball rocketed in to catcher Wilson Ramos on a straight line. Ramos, positioned in front of the plate, didn’t move an inch. The ball hit his glove chest-high. Schafer didn’t even bother trying.
The crowd gave Ankiel a standing ovation — for a throw that didn’t even record an out.
“I would have called it a strike, that’s for sure,” Strasburg said.
“That was a good one,” Ankiel said with a chuckle. “I mean, I was surprised. It’s one of their fastest guys on their team, with the bases loaded, I thought for sure he was going. Ball was in the air and I’m like ‘He’s gotta go.’ But hey, it shows a lot of respect that they didn’t, so, yeah, it makes me feel good.”
Among major leaguers, there’s little question that Ankiel has the best outfield arm in the big leagues. A former pitcher whose incredible conversion story is well-documented, Ankiel has a highlight-reel full of throws like the one he made Monday night, and plenty of them from his first year in a Nationals’ uniform — they just usually have a runner actually trying to test him.
“Afterwards, Schafer, me and (third base coach Dave Clark) were laughing about it,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “Everyone knows that it’s kind of predetermined not to test Rick out.”
Ramos said from his spot at catcher his feeling is “pop it up to Ankiel, he’s got a cannon.” He also couldn’t think of many other throws he’s fielded from center in which he didn’t have to move his body in inch to receive the ball.
“Not too many,” he said. “Not everybody can make that throw.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t send him,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He was out there 300 feet or so. I’d like to see whether he’d (make) it or not, perfect throw. Glad I’m not a third base coach. I’d have sent him.”
– Ramos cranked his first home run of the season Monday night, putting the Nationals up 2-0 in the fourth inning with a solo home run into the right center field seats. It was a good sign for the catcher who has been gradually working his way into a groove at the plate. Through 11 games, Ramos is hitting .226.
“I’m excited right now, because I feel better at the plate,” Ramos said. “Those three at-bats I take today, I feel comfortable. When I’m loose at the plate, I start to hit the ball the other way. Today I hit the ball pretty good. I like to hit the ball to the opposite way. I feel more power when I hit the ball over there. Today I just put a pretty good swing on the ball and it carried.”
Ramos has been working on some minor adjustments with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, he said, though he declined to elaborate on what, specifically, those adjustments were. The Nationals’ catcher had a solid rookie season offensively, despite focusing much of his energy on improving his game-calling skills and his work behind the plate. The pitchers have continued to rave about Ramos’ catching abilities but it’s a good sign for the Nationals to see some of his power starting to come around early this season.
– One thing to keep an eye on for the Nationals down the road was that Stephen Strasburg felt, somehow, the Astros were aware of what was coming in the sixth inning with runners in scoring position. Strasburg is well aware that teams are going to do whatever they can to gain an edge on him but he sensed, particularly in the sixth, that the Astros hitters were far too comfortable in the box against him.
When he came in after the inning, having surrendered the two-run lead his teammates had built him, he told Johnson he thought he might have been tipping.
“Just the way they were kind of checking on some pitches and stuff,” Strasburg said. “Typically, kind of the hitter does something a little different on some pitches, and when they know it’s coming, they obviously look very comfortable in there. That’s something I’m going to have to look at on the film, and if I am doing it, I know how to fix it.”
Strasburg seemed to feel that it was particularly an issue when runners were in scoring position, leading one to believe it was perhaps as they looked in at the signs or even glanced at his grip in his glove. Johnson said the team has never had any concerns previously about Strasburg tipping pitches.
“It was more when guys would get in scoring position that I felt like they definitely were kind of seeing pitches a little differently,” Strasburg said. “I don’t think I was throwing any pitches worse or with different kind of movement, but they definitely seemed a little bit more comfortable with guys on second base.”
Strasburg had a nasty curveball for much of the night on Monday, using it for three of his first four strikeouts and throwing it with authority basically whenever he wanted to. In the fourth inning, he threw three straight curveballs to strike out J.D. Martinez. Martinez fouled off the first one, then flailed at the next two. In his at-bat in the sixth, though, he threw him four in a nine-pitch at-bat and Martinez stayed alive long enough to walk and set up the aforementioned bases-loaded jam.