The Washington Times - March 21, 2012, 07:36AM

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A year ago at this time, Henry Rodriguez and the strike zone were not well-acquainted. The right-hander who came over as part of the trade for Josh Willingham, arrived to camp late with a visa issue and tried to impress from the moment he stepped foot into Space Coast Stadium.

He was throwing his triple-digit fastball, but no one could be sure it would end up in the strike zone.

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A sore neck allowed the Nationals to leave him off the Opening Day roster, so he spent some time in the minor leagues trying to find the balance. And while improved by the time he arrived in Washington a few short weeks later, much of the season was spent waging the battle between Rodriguez’s jaw-dropping stuff and his control.

But toward the end of last season, Rodriguez emerged. The power was good, but the offspeed stuff was even better. It sent a message to Rodriguez.

“Now he knows he doesn’t need to do too much,” Rodriguez said through translator and teammate Andres Blanco. “He just tries to concentrate on his pitch and the location. It’s been working.”

This spring, Rodriguez has thrown five scoreless innings and surrendered one hit. More importantly he’s walked just two (and hit one batter) but struck out four. One of the walks and the hit batter came in the same game.

The key, he said, has been learning to make adjustments.

“Last year, he didn’t make adjustments quick enough,” Rodriguez said through Blanco. “it cost him two months throwing in the minor leagues… He doesn’t try to do too much, he just tries to mix the pitches and the location and throw close to the strike zone. He trusts that his pitches are going to move effectively to get those guys out.”

Move they do. There aren’t radar guns at every spring training stadium but Rodriguez has been more in the mid-to-upper 90s this spring than in the 99-100 range with every pitch. He can still dial it up, but this is spring training and for Rodriguez, hitters just knowing he could rear back and throw one of those at any time is a weapon in itself.

“He just realized that when he came over here (last year), he tried to get ready quickly and his arm wasn’t 100 percent,” Rodriguez said through Blanco. “He knows that his offspeed pitches moved more effectively in years before but he was trying to do too much and it didn’t do nothing. Now he knows — he realizes you have to take a few miles (off) and keep it under control and that’s why (the pitches) do what they do right now.”

“(He’s) nasty,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Much calmer. Under control. And that’s basically what I saw the last two months of the season.”

– Washington Nationals shortstop and projected leadoff man Ian Desmond picked up his first walk of the spring Tuesday night, his first in 36 spring at-bats. Desmond also appeared to think he also should have walked in his first plate appearance of the night as well. He struck out in that appearance, but the walk was a good sign for Desmond getting a feel for the strike zone as the shortstop knows his on-base percentage (career .304) must rise this season as the team’s leadoff hitter.

– Right-hander Craig Stammen continued his most sterling spring with a scoreless inning of relief work Tuesday night. Stammen now has a team-leading 11 strikeouts this spring and he’s pitched well enough to warrant serious consideration for a long relief role in the Nationals bullpen. Due to the fact that he has an option remaining and the Nationals’ bullpen is overcrowded as it is, he’s probably a long shot. But his performance has done nothing to indicate that he wouldn’t be a valuable member of that group.