PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — As the late-morning sun drenched Tradition Field on Saturday and the wind gusted out, Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond came out to survey the scene and finish his preparation for the first baseball game he’d played in almost five months.
He looked down and saw his hands were trembling, just a little.
“That’s just the way baseball is,” Desmond said. “We all love it so much. I think to get to this level you have to love it that much. (I was) just ready to get back out there.”
It seems those butterflies don’t dissipate easily. Whether it was the shortstop, the 20-year-old left fielder, the 70-year-old manager or even the otherworldly ace who’d had a longer offseason than everyone else, they all found themselves with a little extra adrenaline in the Nationals’ 5-3 loss to the Mets on Saturday afternoon.
It was how they handled it that perhaps showed what this game, No. 1 of 35 this exhibition season and prelude to the 162 they’ll grind through to get where they want to go, was truly worth.
Stephen Strasburg stood on the mound Saturday afternoon and faced another team for the first time since Sept. 7. He threw 31 pitches in the first inning — “a little bit of a debacle,” as he put it — and struggled to find comfort on the mound. His cleat caught on the pitching rubber repeatedly. His legs, when he could feel them, he knew were moving quicker than his arm. He felt himself yanking his fastball, which he threw almost exclusively, to the outside corner.
Strasburg threw 18 strikes and 13 balls in a frame that featured a hard single to center field, followed by a wind-blown two-run homer (from a guy who has two career home runs to his name in Ruben Tejada), gave up a double later in the frame and took three of the six batters he faced to three-ball counts.
“Usually that’s what happens with me,” Strasburg said, recalling other spring openers that began similarly, and even going back to his college days when the first game of the season would follow this all-too-familiar script.
“I get the adrenaline going, and as much as I try and tell myself to slow down, I just can’t.”
“When his mechanics stayed solid, he looked great,” said catcher Chris Snyder, who’d homered of Strasburg in his 2012 spring opener. “I think that first inning went a little quick for him. Once he settled down in the second inning, he was effective.”
In the past, though, that first inning might’ve been greeted with a tirade. The perfectionist inside the Nationals’ right-hander doesn’t want it to go that way, regardless of whether it’s a noon game on Feb. 23 with the season still a good five weeks away or not.
“I get pumped up for every game,” Strasburg said. “But we threw two bullpens and a live batting practice and that doesn’t even compare to getting out there in a game for the first time, after a much longer offseason for me.”
Saturday, Strasburg returned to the dugout, composed himself and made the necessary adjustments.
In the second inning, he threw three curveballs, mixing in the pitch a bit more even though his instructions from the coaching staff were to forget the results and focus mainly on his fastball command. He retired the bottom of the Mets’ order in 11 pitches and only five of them were balls.
He relaxed. He refocused. He got his work in, under the 45-pitch limit.
“I think last year at this time, if he would’ve done what he did in that first inning, we would have seen gloves flying, cups flying,” Desmond said. “He was fairly composed today. He got frustrated with himself a little bit, but he’s a competitor, and that’s what you want. I don’t want a guy that looks like he’s not trying out there.”
But it’s been a process for Strasburg to get to the point where he can chat casually about the 42-pitch outing that was just another day of work instead of it being fuel for the ever-burning fire inside him. Instead of taking his aggression over the first inning into his next bullpen session to, as he put it, “throw and throw and throw until it felt good,” he recognizes that it’s a long spring — followed by a long season. This is simply the time to get ready.
“You can’t really read into whether you have a good outing or a bad outing in spring training,” Strasburg said. “It doesn’t count. It doesn’t go toward your regular-season record. This is the time where I just need to stay the course, not read into things too much, not try and go out there and throw in the bullpen and right the ship for the next time. Just keep it all the same and just know that as time goes on, the more and more times I get out there on the mound it’s going to get a little bit better.”
When Strasburg’s two innings for work were over, he joked in the dugout with Snyder about how the catcher had played a role in ruining his spring opener in 2012. Snyder, who also hit a two-run home run to left field off Mets starter Shaun Marcum on Saturday, hadn’t forgotten the swing against Strasburg, either.
“I got that one pretty good,” Snyder said later, a slight smile crossing his lips.
The Nationals plans this season include watching Strasburg pitch every fifth day, straight into what they hope will be a deep playoff run. He wants to shoulder the pressure as well as the workload. He talks openly about his desire to become one of the best pitchers in the game, and knows pacing himself mentally as well as physically is a part of that, even if it’s taken him a little while to realize it.
He wants to pitch in October. His teammates are excited to watch him.
“He wants to be that guy,” Desmond said. “If that’s what you want to be, then here you go, now’s your chance to show everybody.”