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Contract in hand and feeling healthy, Matt Purke ready to pitch

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Matt Purke knew his talent, but he knew his body, too. He knew that the way he performed this spring for Texas Christian University, missing a month with shoulder bursitis and never standing on a mound fully healthy, would be problematic as a draft-eligible sophomore.

So when the Washington Nationals selected Purke in the third round, No. 93 overall, he had no hesitation about how to handle his medical status. Purke was honest with the Nationals. He invited them to watch him throw, he underwent a rigorous physical and even allowed them to perform an MRI and an arthrogram test on his left shoulder during a visit to D.C. in mid-July.

"I told them, 'Look, I want to come up [to Washington] and I want to get this out of the way," Purke told The Washington Times on Wednesday. " 'I want y'all to see it, get a feel on it, get every MRI you've got to do so we can make an agreement on how my medical looks and we can continue to the terms of the contract.'

"I didn't want to negotiate a deal, have it done and pending on my physical."

It paid off Monday night when Purke signed a four-year major league deal worth about $4 million and joined the Nationals' growing stable of elite prospects.

Purke was the 14th overall pick in 2009 by the Texas Rangers, and a $6 million contract was agreed upon. But before the signing deadline, the deal was rejected by Major League Baseball, which was overseeing money matters for the financially strapped club. The sides were unable to reach an agreement at the last minute.

Bearing that in mind, Purke said, Washington and general manager Mike Rizzo's upfront nature was a breath of fresh air for him and his family.

Both sides agreed that a major league deal would need to be a part of the package, an acknowledgement of Purke's exceptional talent and proof of health that made it "not a big fighting point," Purke said.

"Throughout the summer there was never a point where it took a turn for the worse," he said, adding that he was "definitely" confident that his agent Peter Vescovo and Rizzo would get a deal done and he'd become part of an organization he truly wanted to join.

"While I was doing my college recruiting process and I was taking my visits to schools, when I got to TCU, I just kind of felt a sense of 'This is a place that I can feel at home. I connect to these people,' " he said. "When me and my family traveled to Washington to do my medicals and we were around the stadium and the field and the owners and everything, I got the same kind of feeling.

"These people are good people that I can connect to and can call this place home. ... This team is going to be very, very good in a short amount of time. They're going to be somebody that other teams are going to have to deal with. I knew that I wanted to be a part of that."

There, the Nationals and the 21-year-old lefty agree. In giving both Purke and the No. 6 overall pick, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, major league deals, the organization acknowledged it felt both players were close to contributing on the big-league level.

"If they weren't such extreme talents and polished players, it would be impossible for us to do it," Rizzo said Monday night. "We had the perfect combination of top-notch talent and polished college players that are close to the big leagues to allow us to do that."

After a 16-0 freshman campaign that had some speculating about Purke going No. 1 overall this year, Purke simply "ran out of games," to get himself back to full health this season. Pitching just twice between mid-April and June, Purke estimated he was only 85 percent healthy in TCU's 3-2 loss to Oral Roberts in the NCAA Fort Worth Regional. He still threw five innings, allowed two runs on two hits, walked two and struck out six.

"My shoulder was completely healthy, but my body wasn't the way I usually am," Purke said. "I just didn't have enough time to get my arm strength and my body back from sitting out."

To make up for that, Purke set about this summer on a throwing program at Tomball Sports Medicine in Texas and worked up to throwing seven or eight bullpen sessions, each between 45-50 pitches. He hasn't been clocked on a radar gun but feels his pitches regaining their old bite. Purke estimates he could throw two or three innings in a regulation game, but he doesn't know where he'll face his first live batter since the first week of June — Single-A Auburn, Viera, Fla., or in the Arizona Fall League — but he knows it will happen soon.

"It's been 2 1/2 months and, quite honestly, I'm tired of just throwing to a catcher," Purke said. "I'm ready to see somebody swing at it and see what I've got.

"[The Nationals] said that from what they've seen me do that I am ready to pitch and start getting some innings. They're going to find me a place where I can do that. ... I'm ready. Just give me a uniform and put me out there."

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