VIERA, Fla. — On his 37th birthday Mark DeRosa watched seven pitches from Stephen Strasburg go by. He walked out of the batting cage, looked at pitching coach Steve McCatty and mouthed: “Damn!”
“Yeah, that’s special,” DeRosa said after facing both Strasburg and left-hander Gio Gonzalez in the group’s first live batting practice session of the spring.
Live batting practice generally provides a little more entertainment than your usual spring workout with guys getting a chance to face one another and extend a little trash talking. Sunday, though, all anyone was doing was walking away impressed.
DeRosa, who was with the San Francisco Giants when Strasburg first made it to the majors, remembered getting a text from friend and former National Jason Marquis on the day that Strasburg made his major league debut that simply said: “You need to watch this.”
With a day game in San Francisco, DeRosa fired up the computer and got a look at the dazzling debut.
He got a better look on Sunday.
“He looks like he’s not even trying out there and it’s just exploding out of his hand,” DeRosa said. “I wasn’t excited about getting him and Gio first day, but I’ve got to think everything else is going to kind of pale in comparison.”
DeRosa said he also saw Strasburg’s changeup, though it’s easily confused with a splitter. In fact DeRosa, who even knew what was coming because the hitters are told, still said later he didn’t know if it was a splitter or a change. Either way, the fastball overpowered everything else.
“Now, I know there’s a difference,” he said. “But his heater’s so good. It’s got a little jump on it at the end, you almost lose it for a second coming out of his hand. Yeah, He’s nasty.
“I mean, I expected nothing less than unhittable stuff. I was proud that I put the ball in play. I did ground out to second.”
DeRosa may have been shaking his head but there was one guy who was disappointed he didn’t get a chance to face Strasburg: Bryce Harper.
“I wanted to face him so bad,” Harper said. “I just wanted to see what he was about. If he made me look stupid, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see what he’s got.”
Harper got a chance to hit off Drew Storen instead. He took three straight fastballs from Storen, waved at a breaking ball and drove a pretty hard groundball through the right side of the infield. While he was disappointed to have missed out on the Nationals’ other No. 1 overall pick, he wasn’t sure if he’d lobby for a shot next time around.
“I don’t know if I’d want it,” he said. “I don’t know that I want to face him. I’m glad he’s on my team. It would just be fun to step in there and see what he looks like from that angle. I watched him from the dugout when I was in Harrisburg. That’s as close as I want to get to that.”
Strasburg was less focused on the idea of facing Harper.
“Was I looking forward to it? No. I’m just trying to get my work in,” he said. “It’s not like they’re out there trying to do like these perfect matchups of top prospects of all time. He’s out there trying to get his looks. I’m out there trying to throw strikes. We’re on the same team.”
As Strasburg walked off the mound, Gonzalez passed him and yelled out to no one in particular: “That’s gonna be a tough act to follow right there. I gotta follow up on that?”
Gonzalez was no slouch himself. Rick Ankiel, who’d said previously that he was excited to get a look at him, came away impressed.
“It was a really good hook,” Ankiel said of Gonzalez’s curveball. “It was good to get out there and see him.”
He and DeRosa were also in agreement that their spring performance can likely only improve after facing Strasburg and Gonzalez on the first day of live BP.
“We saw some live arms that group we were in,” Ankiel said, re-thinking his desire to see Gonzalez.
“I just wanted to see him live,” he joked. “I didn’t necessarily mean in the box.”
– One other highlight of the day came in Michael Morse’s session. He broke his first bat of the season on a Craig Stammen pitch, much to the delight of McCatty who let out a pretty loud chortle when he heard the bat break.
Morse also rocketed a Sean Burnett breaking ball off the top of the batters eye in center on the Nationals’ practice field. Needless to say it was a monster shot.