The Washington Times - March 16, 2013, 10:12PM

VIERA, Fla. — There came a point Saturday night, in the third inning of the Washington Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Houston Astros, where Stephen Strasburg looked as if he was simply toying with hitters. 

Three pitches to Trevor Crowe. Three strikes. One out.

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Three pitches to Brett Wallace. Three strikes. Two outs.

It did take him seven pitches to put away Astros first baseman Carlos Pena, but he sent him back to the dugout just the same way, regardless. 

“It’s starting to click a little bit,” Strasburg said after he got his pitch count up to 93 (64 strikes) in 5 1/3 innings of work. He allowed one earned run, on a solo home run by old friend Rick Ankiel, walked one and struck out eight.

“He looked great,” said manager Davey Johnson. “He threw a lot of pitches for the innings he threw, but he still had a lot left in the tank.”

It was perhaps symbolic that Strasburg, the man whose workload was so often debated in 2012, was the first Nationals pitcher to crack the 90-pitch mark this spring. There are no special rules for Strasburg this time around.

He still has two starts left and he’ll likely throw around that number, or close to 100, before Johnson gives him a shorter start in his final outing of the spring in preparation for Opening Day. He wants to get his body ready to throw plenty more.

“I’m not trying to get out there and get used to throwing 93 pitches,” he said. “You look at some of the top pitchers in the game and they go at least 110 every time out. I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m not saying they’re going to let me do it but I’m going to be physically ready for it.”

On the surface, it doesn’t appear his manager will have a problem with that.

“He’s a regular guy,” Johnson said. “I’m going to treat him like everybody else. He’s a big machine… He’s at the point where he can go deep with a lot of pitches and not lose anything.”

Strasburg still felt there was work to be done.

He was pleased with the progress he made in pitching out of the stretch on Saturday, the product of an adjustment he made with where he places his foot on the pitching rubber. (He used to put his foot more in front of the rubber but felt that wasn’t giving him enough of a downward angle on the ball so he tried moving it more on top of the rubber and it helped.) But he still finds his pitches losing their crispness later in his starts and knows that will come with more strength and more repetitions.

He also held his velocity throughout the start, which was a positive sign for his strength. According to a scout in the stands, Strasburg sat in the 95-96-mph range for most of the night but he was clocked anywhere from 94-98 at various points. 

And then there was his curveball. A pitch that Strasburg felt vastly improved after some advice from former pitcher (and former teammate) Rick Ankiel last season, Strasburg used it was a weapon against him in the first inning, striking Ankiel out on four pitches. 

In the fourth, though, Ankiel took a fastball out over the right field wall. A moment of levity for the Nationals’ ace.

“I signed two jerseys for him earlier so, maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” Strasburg joked. “I gave him a heater right down the middle, too.”

“No,” he added. “He put a good swing on it and he’s an awesome guy. He’s a guy, obviously he was playing outfield for us, but I still remember the advice he gave me with my curveball last year and it really took off and it’s gotten a lot better ever since then.”